The performers in this article refer to the 2016 season of Dollywood’s Festival of Nations. I *thought* I’d be getting this post up around the time the 2017 season started, to offer a taste of what this wonderful festival is like (because it surprised me!) but it turns out the 2017 festival is already over…at only three weeks long, you’ve got to act quickly! I promise I’ll get the hang of this blogging thing.
Being a music lover and a traveler with an interest in world music, I had long wanted to visit Dollywood’s Festival of Nations, which occurs every spring in late March to early April. (2017 festival dates were March 18-April 9.) I finally put together a solo trip for myself in 2016 for the last week of the festival and enjoyed myself immensely! This festival was so much more than I expected.
I guess I pictured musicians playing and discussing their music in different venues, maybe almost academically. But the emphasis at Dollywood is showmanship, performance, and deep, deep piles of charm. Not only were there musicians, there were acrobats and comedians and even the little “gazebo” shows got people on the street dancing and involved in the music. I ended up enjoying this event more than any other festival I saw the rest of the year, including the fantastic Christmas shows. While I don’t recommend a whole week of it like I did, spend at least two days to allow yourself to see everything, especially if you also want to ride any rides. I will say, everything was a walk-on during the week I was there. The *ahem* older demographic that seem to like the festival music don’t tend to queue up for many thrill rides.
Below, I’ll give a brief overview of all the performers I saw in 2016, ranked from my favorite on down. The word I though of over and over while I saw these was charming. Big smiles and engaging personalities dominated every last performance, even down to my least favorite act which I still enjoyed. Some of these performers do come back every year or two, but mainly I offer this as a sample of the kinds of performances you may find if you go–which I *highly* recommend.
The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra
The United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra (aka TUKUO) was my FAVORITE! I was surprised that there was so much singing, along with adept musicianship and witty comedy. They knew how to play to the audience, with great covers of Dolly’s song “Jolene,” a “dueling ukes” version of dueling banjos, and a very rousing version of Rocky Top that really got the crowd going. They also sprinkled in lots of 60’s British pop hits, the Beach Boys, some hilarious Elvis, and one prime Spice Girls joke. (Imagine in a posh English voice: “Leslie? Do you know what I want? What I really, really want?” et. al.) Each player had lots of character and the show itself was honed and professional. I liked it so much, I saw them four times–and by doing so, I found out they had two different sets, so it’s worth checking out your favorites more than once. They were major-ish enough to be an indoor act at the Pines Theater. You can check them out here on YouTube.
Los Pampas Gauchos
Los Pampas Gauchos presented a super high-energy display of Argentine drums and malambo dancing, a sort of stomping, escalating fiesta of rhythm. These guys had big personalities and garnered big laughs, and were flexible enough in their set to allow for new jokes on repeat viewings. It doesn’t hurt that they were also pretty good-looking. There was a very incongruous black light puppet show in the middle, but even that had its charm and the kids certainly liked it. The Gauchos seem to be Dollywood regulars, so it’s likely they’ll be around in the future. It’s also worth noting that they tend to pull a young family up on stage, so sit up front and to the right if you want to get involved. Another major indoor act, they were in the Showstreet Palace Theater right in the front of the park. See them in action here.
Celtic Coast is a Scottish heritage band from Nova Scotia, and they really knew how to put on a show! There was great audience participation, singing along, great jokes, and even a little bit of Irish dancing from the girl violinist. It felt very homey and inclusive, like a great time with extra-talented friends. They were housed in the outdoor Back Porch theater behind Dolly’s childhood home (and under the train) so they weren’t a headlining act by any means, but I sure did like it. Perhaps it’s my own Scottish heritage that drew me in. See an interview here.
Mother Africa is not just music, but an acrobatics show within a music and dance framework. I was blown away by the musicians, but astounded by the daring of the performers–they had an emphasis on height, always with taller ladders to balance on, taller unicycles to ride. Often, they would reach to the very top of the stage! And it’s the biggest stage on property, too–Mother Africa is arguably the main headlining performance at Dollywood and has returned many times to the Celebrity Theater above Market Square, including the 2017 season. See a New York Times article about them here.
Atahualpa was a smaller act in the Showstreet Gazebo, just a little spot to the side of the walkway, but they did a really good job of getting audience members in on the act–the time I stopped to watch their whole show, they got a bunch of us dancing in a circle with the (quite attractive) musicians. Your mileage on traditional Peruvian music may vary, but there were many familiar tunes, especially on the spiritual side, like Amazing Grace and El Condor Pasa, using instruments from traditional pan flutes (many, many pan flutes–the big ones are kind of cool) to a minimalist electric violin. They returned for the 2107 season. Here’s a video of that dance. And here’s another little video of my own.
This was a little Gypsy band with incredibly fast, incredibly joyous music from the Ukraine. Each band member had their turn to shine on instruments like the violin, accordion, and guitar. There was also a colorful female singer that pitched in about every other song. Again, deeply ethnic music isn’t for everyone, but I found a lot of joy in their performance in the outdoor Valley Theater. Check out their website here.
Duo Del Sol
These two (awfully handsome) men from Uruguay were talented and innovative string players, one on violin and one on guitar, but while they were likable, they lacked a bit of the charm found gushing forth from all the other performances I’d seen. In fact, the guitarist didn’t speak or make hardly any expression at all, which left the entire show up to the violinist. I found myself wondering what they would be like in front of a younger crowd. Check out their web page here.
Apparently, there was also a French flautist that I managed to miss on his one day there, and a few characters roaming around the Market Square–a German accordion player and a few “elf” stilt walkers who posed for pictures. There is more to this festival than just the music, so stay tuned for more about the food and shopping!