How to explain the Stampede? Well, it's dinner theatre. With horses and cows. And sparkles and patriotism. Maybe it's just inexplicable. I'll try again.
Before the show starts, you are invited to sit in the Carriage House, which is a large room with a small raised stage in the middle. Young women in Miss Kitty outfits act as cocktail waitresses, except that everything you can order is virgin. Prohibition is in effect at the Stampede. I had some sort of frozen orange drink, an orange sunrise or something. It was delicious and served to me in a commemorative 2010 Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede plastic cup shaped like a boot. It would have been even better with a little vodka. Or rum, I'm not picky.
A trio of musicians soon took the stage - a guitar player, a fiddler, and a guy with a big double bass. They played old country songs and church hymns, the same songs I used to hear sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford in my daddy's pickup. In between songs, there was good ole boy banter and clean jokes. The audience sang and clapped along. It was odd hearing church music in a secular setting, even if probably 90% of the people in the room grew up singing those songs on Sunday mornings just like I did. But also it was an acknowledgement of a heritage. Whatever you believe, this music is part of the culture of the mountains of east Tennessee.
One thing I like about Dolly Parton: she's true to her roots, if not her hair color.
After the singin', we all filed into the main room to take our seats. The auditorium was shaped sort of like a smallish high school football stadium. It smelled like a barn. In the middle was a big dirt arena, freshly raked. Seating went around on three sides - benches set up behind tables. As we sat down, waiters came around and offered us beverages served in mason jars. I chose the sweet tea, because I figured that Dolly had a good recipe.
I don't like to perpetuate stereotypes about the South, but here's where it might get a little weird for those of y'all that ain't from around here. The waiters were dressed as soldiers from the
The show starts and proceeds as the food is served. I'm sure they have it all timed out. When the lady in the sequined unitard rides two quarterhorses standing up, you get your soup. And when they do the magic trick with the woman in the barrel, you get your chicken. It's a big meal. When I say you get your chicken, I mean you get the whole bird delivered to your plate. For a chicken, it's smallish, but then again, it's only meant for one person. There's also a stuffed potato skin and a cheddar biscuit, a slice of pork tenderloin and apple turnover for dessert. It's all old fashioned comfort food, and it is mmm-mmm-good eatin'.
Here's the thing - there's no silverware. You'd probably eat the potato, the biscuit, and maybe the turnover with your hands anyway, unless you were on the prim side. The soup comes in a handled bowl for easy sipping. But the chicken sits on your plate just like those whole rotisserie chickens in the deli section at the grocery store. You just have to rip into it and eat it with your hands. It's not too greasy, and they give you a big napkin.
To my surprise, I found that I actively enjoyed eating with my hands. Obviously, the choice to not give your patrons a set of utensils is conscious, and personally, I think it was inspired. Some people seemed a little squeamish about it, but I was all in. I left a chicken skeleton on my plate, picked clean. There was something visceral about it, as if it added a whole new dimension to eating. We taste, we smell, and we feel the texture of the food in our mouths, but we rarely touch it with our fingers, because it's uncouth. Back before hand-washing was invented, that was probably a good idea. I'm not advocating throwing out your silverware, but maybe eating with our hands is something we should do more often, and not just pizza and toast.
The show is sort of like Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, or at least it's like how that Buffalo Bill's show is portrayed in Annie, Get Your Gun. There's some singing and dancing. They bring out a couple of horse-drawn wagons and a small herd of longhorns. A couple of equestrian acrobats do tricks like riding standing up or jumping through a ring of fire. A guy in overalls comes out and tells corny jokes. And there are contests between the North and the South (always the North and the South, never the Union and the Confederacy). These contests consist of racing up and down the field on a horse or having some children from the audience come down and chase chickens across a finish line (one kid picked up his chicken and threw it bodily across the line, which was not allowed). They assume that your hands and mouth are preoccupied with the meal, so you are instructed to cheer for your side by stomping your feet on the wooden floor, thus the name. After each contest, the winning side is awarded a blue or gray little victory flag.
I admit that the entertainment is cheesy. If you sit there and think about how corny the jokes are or how the performers appear to be just riding horses back and forth, you are not going to enjoy yourself. You have to be willing to let yourself get into it. The Dixie Stampede is not sophisticated or thought-provoking or even particularly clever. It's an experience, so you might as well stomp your feet. Just go with it. If you do, you will find to your surprise that you are having fun.
As we progressed through our vittles, it became clear that by the end of the evening, the South was going to have more victory flags. We speculated to ourselves how they were going to end the game. They obviously weren't rigging it for the North, but they could hardly have the South win. Even in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, they know better than to do that.
As it turned out, America won. Yay?
Okay, the whole Civil War theme is weird and insensitive. Even if the war hadn't been fought over the right to keep human beings as property, it was still the bloodiest war in American history. And the Stampede is making light of it, treating it as if it were some kind of cross-town rivalry. I can't defend that. But I can say that it was pretty accurate in terms of my experience growing up just on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. We had UNC vs. NC State, Pepsi vs. Coke, and North vs. South. We take great pride in being Southern, we love a good rivalry, and it seems like there's a real obvious one right there.
I won't deny that some of that North vs. South stuff is really the Union vs. the Confederacy. It's motivated by hatred and fear of the Other; racism still exists in the South. Growing up here, it was hard to reconcile the image of A Racist, who was Bad, with the actual people that you knew who seemed like good Christian folk, but didn't like black people. They could be your family, friends, or neighbors. They were people who you love and who have never been anything but good, salt-of-the-earth people to you. They would pray for you when someone in your family dies, and they brought you casseroles when you are sick. But then they had got this huge glaring flaw that makes you want to pretend that you're from Montana. Can you still be a good person if you are a racist? Are some failings unredeemable? Is anyone clean enough to decide which ones?
It is getting better. Racism has been almost non-existent in my experience in Raleigh, and even back in my rural hometown, it's improving. Each generation, there's a bit more acceptance and less hate. I hope to see the day when I don't have to defend the South. I know that it doesn't prove anything, but it did my heart good to see North Carolina turn blue in the 2008 election, even if only just barely. There's a black guy in the White House, and we helped! Voting for the other guy doesn't make you a racist, but as long as Obama won, can't we agree that it's a good thing to not look like jerks?
Maybe the Dixie Stampede is trying to reclaim the South's reputation. It's a place, full of people who are neither totally good nor totally evil, just like every other place in the world. And while you are at it, check it out, we have a legitimate culture here that isn't all about being illiterate and bigoted! If that's what they are doing, I wholeheartedly approve of the cause, if not the method. Treating the Civil War like it was a particularly exciting UNC/NC State football game isn't really acknowledging the shame of it.
For me, and I hope most people, Southern pride is not about saving your Confederate money in the belief that it will soon be in circulation again. It's about the good food and the pleasant weather and the friendly people. It's about the soft, lilting accents and the twangy accents and everything in between. It's about the trees and the mountains and the swamps and the plains and the beaches. It's about knowing and loving where you came from and being true to your roots. Everyone from every other place is allowed to love their home without anyone assuming they burn crosses in their spare time. Why not us?
So, do you understand the Dixie Stampede now?