Before we turn our attention to Dolly Parton’s highly anticipated performance at Chicago’s House of Blues, let’s briefly talk about how a crummy concert venue can affect a concert-going experience. I’ve usually got few beefs with the Chicago branch of the HOB chain. Yes, their drinks are overpriced, they have bathroom attendants, they sell souvenirs, and there is always some sort of cigarette promotion taking place, but in general the venue provides the opportunity to see big-name artists in a small setting, and the sound is top-notch. This time, however, the greed demons seemed to have taken hold of HOB, and they sold tickets to far more people than the venue could comfortably hold. Thank God there wasn’t a fire. Of course, if there had been a fire during the first 20 minutes of the show, I needn’t have worried, since I was still en route after having read somewhere that the show started at 9 p.m. (in reality, it began at 8:30 and there was no opening act).
All issues of comfort, safety, being able to see, and missing (I’m guessing) three songs aside, attending a live show by one of the living legends of country music as she’s riding high on the crest of a comeback was nothing less than fabulous. Parton’s three albums for the independent Sugar Hill label have received tons of accolades because they fuse her greatest strengths: heartfelt songwriting, a pitch-perfect voice, and a pure country spirit that is nonetheless unafraid to experiment. Even though The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, and Halos & Horns include covers of pop/rock songs like Collective Soul’s “Shine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, the albums are in most ways a return to the music of Parton’s Smoky Mountain youth. Parton blazed a trail as a country crossover artist in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but has largely returned to her roots, musically speaking; in her good-natured and bawdy sense of humor she never “got above her raisin’” even in her glossiest moments.
On the Chicago stop of her current tour, the first in nearly a decade, Parton largely abandoned the musical excesses of her past in favor of keeping it real. In spite of her red sequined gown and trademark big blond wig, Parton used the stage like a real musician, playing acoustic guitar, dulcimer, harmonica, and banjo. Whether or not the large contingent of homosexual men in the audience appreciated this stripped-down version of their gay icon, however, is up for debate. Although many in the crowd seemed to enjoy the renditions of early hits (including “Jolene”, which Parton dedicated to the drag queens present), no song got a bigger response than “9 to 5”, one of the few cheese-era concessions Dolly made in her set list. Parton glossed over a few more of her crossover hits—“Islands in the Stream”, Here You Come Again”, “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That”, and “Two Doors Down”—in an a cappella medley with her male back-up singers. Otherwise, the show was a rundown of her best pure country moments, from classics like “Coat of Many Colors” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home” to Sugar Hill-era songs like “Little Sparrow” and “Halos and Horns”.
Now in her 56th year, Parton has taken remarkably good care of her voice and sounds just as great live as she did on her early records. The only problem was that her microphone was initially turned down too low and her band drowned her out (thanks again, House of Evil… er, House of Blues). Thankfully, the problem was resolved after a few songs, but the early part of the set suffered for it, and several of the anecdotes and jokes she told between songs were lost. That’s too bad, because Parton has always been a master of cracking wise and much of her onstage banter reflected this. In one riff on her large family, Parton said people often ask if they’re Catholic because she has so many siblings. “I tell ‘em, naw, we ain’t Catholic,” Parton quipped, “We’re just horny hillbillies!”
That there were many hillbillies, horny or otherwise, in the sold-out crowd is dubious. There’s something kind of strange about hearing stories of moonshiners and auto workers in a crowd full of city slickers, but it just goes to show that everybody can find something to relate to in Dolly Parton, whether it’s her flamboyant sense of fashion or her down-home wisdom. The downside to mainstream popularity is that it’s easy for an artist’s work to get watered down, but Parton seems to have weathered that particular storm and is back to simply singing great songs in that inimitable, angelic voice. Hopefully, she’ll be back to play in some more egalitarian establishments soon.