Country legend Dolly Parton and a fleet of seven tour buses swung through Northeast Ohio Friday night on her first major tour in almost 25 years. Ms. Parton, known for her love of rhinestones, big blonde wigs, and a million-watt smile, dazzled the sold-out crowd at Hard Rock Live‘s 2,200-seat venue.
Engaging the audience with stories of her dirt-poor upbringing in eastern Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, she waxed poetically on how little her family, twelve children and an illiterate father, shared with her mother. Yet, they had “love, kindness and a deep understanding.” Deeply religious, her family lacked the basic necessities of what we might take for granted. Laughing about sleeping four to a single bed, she said they had running water: her brothers would have to run outside to fetch it from the local well.
Although she started as a country singer and songwriter, her career eventually branched out to include appearances in movies and television shows. Her most famous appearance was in the early ’80s workplace comedy 9 To 5, co-starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.
The evening’s performances included a healthy dose of older songs that she wrote about her Appalachian upbringing. Tunes such as “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Smoky Mountain Memories” filled the Americana portion of the show, while her “Jolene” took place early in the set, bringing the entire crowd to their feet.
Crowd favorites such as “Apple Jack” and “Rocky Top” elicited a strong response from the crowd; during “Rocky Top” she pulled out a small tenor sax and went to town on a rendition of the Benny Hill theme song. A little unexpected: both her sax-playing skills and the choice of a mashup tune with such a well-known standard. But, somehow, it worked.
Her band, a tight trio with standup bass, piano, and guitar, backed up Ms. Parton on a haunting four-part harmony cover of John Wright’s “Precious Memories.” Throughout the night, she played no less than six different instruments: banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, guitar, piano, saxophone and a piccolo. Who knew she was that immensely gifted?
Prior to a twenty-minute intermission she sang a haunting version of “The Seeker” and then closed with a zippy version of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.”
The second half of the show saw a fantastic slow-tempo version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” as well as a solo a capella cut of “Little Sparrow.” She then offered her staples: “Here You Come Again,” her first big-selling record, followed by “Islands in the Stream” and a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, sing-along version of “9 To 5.” The band then left the stage to thunderous applause. She made her way back to the stage a few moments later and proceeded to give us “I Will Always Love You,” made famous in 1992 by Whitney Houston but written and recorded by Ms. Parton in the mid 1970s.
It’s strange how music morphs and changes. It’s interesting how punk artists from the ’70s start cranking out music with an orchestra backing them up. Or how rock gods start cutting Cole Porter tribute albums. I heard Peter Wolf turn “Love Stinks” into a bluegrass ditty just three nights ago. But, having said that there’s some solace and continuity in hearing a timeless singer like Dolly Parton tackle her songbook without much change. She sang them in the same key and with the same musicians she’s been playing with since the early part of her career.
Although she hasn’t been here in almost a quarter century, her voice hasn’t aged a bit. It would do her a disservice to say that she sounds great for a seventy-year old singer. She sounds great period. Her timing is precise and her stories are charming. I hope she makes her way back through the 216 soon; this is an artist that I’m so glad I got to see and experience.
Tonight’s concert was a true bucket lister.