Where else can you find an even distribution of rednecks, drag queens, and somebody’s grandparents? The best thing about being in the presence of a cultural icon like Dolly Parton is that she does what President George W. Bush pledged to do in his first campaign (and then failed miserably to actually achieve): she’s a uniter, not a divider.
Given the visible solidarity between the punk rock lesbians waving their arms to “9 to 5” and the harmonizing churchgoers who last month voted to ban those same lesbians from having the right to breathe, maybe it’s time to consider the idea of Ambassador Dolly.
Seeing Parton perform is like watching a live musical. Every moment is part of the performance. This includes scripted dialogue with the audience, scripted jokes and scripted stories between songs. It’s unclear who the real Dolly is—it seems she wants to keep it this way. Given the degree of privacy surrounding her personal life—but the sassy, over-caffeinated Dolly persona is so much gosh-darn fun that we’ll take it. And we’ve been taking it for almost forty years now. Just as Madonna has captivated audiences for decades by reinventing herself through a postmodern deluge of identities, Dolly remains a permanent fixture in popular culture through her unwavering performance as a caricature of herself.
Her songs are as inscribed into our brains as her trademark wig and magnificent melons (which she assured the audience would not pop out during the show: “If I pull a Janet Jackson, I’m going to take out about four rows.”)
Dolly has written over 3,000 songs; everybody knows at least one, whether it be “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again,” or “Rocky Top Tennessee.” It was no surprise that everybody seemed to know what song was about to start as Dolly began clicking her long red fingernails together into the microphone and said the sound reminded her of a typewriter. “Working nine to five, what a way to make a living ”
As if she needed to throw in cover songs to make up for a lack of her own, Dolly chose several fun ones. They were bold and, at times, surprisingly political. Her playful cover of the 1971 hit by Melanie, “Brand New Key” (better known as “The Roller Skate Song”) was dedicated to the kids, while her cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” proved that she is one of few able to add a new twist to the song without butchering it. Her cover of “Shine” (the big hit for Collective Soul) shows that even a cheesy rock song sounds good with some bluegrass backing.
Known as an intelligent businesswoman, Dolly is not one to use her celebrity to make political statements. But when her piano player started plunking out the notes to “Imagine,” it was hard to believe the song picked with purely musical intentions. Given that November was the most violent and deadly month of the year for American soldiers in Iraq, the choice to sing John Lennon’s plea for peace seemed a not-so-subtle response to the current state of world affairs.
The audience held its breath during an a cappella performance of Dolly’s Appalachian song, “Little Sparrow.” While her vocal range, her endlessly cheerful stage presence, and her ability to play an array of instruments were impressive aspects of the night’s performance, it was during “Little Sparrow” that Dolly displayed the true depth of talent beneath the flashy rhinestones and feather boas. Now that she is rich enough to make a living singing poor people’s music, it seems Dolly has returned to doing what she has wanted to do all along: sing the music that moves her.
As her voice echoed across the concert hall during “Little Sparrow,” it was hard not to feel chills—her tender story is that of a fragile bird being crushed like a woman’s heart broken by a careless man. With raw emotion and low, dramatic violin notes carrying the song, the honest, bare-boned performance made it a stunning standout. The moment transformed the image of Dolly Parton, the glittering megastar, to that of a dirt-poor girl from East Tennessee who grew up with few possessions but with a wealth of musical creativity. On a projection screen, the image of clouds rolling across the Rocky Mountains added to the feeling of going back into Dolly’s childhood, where a stringy-haired girl sat on a porch with her 12 siblings and made up songs to pass the time.
Leaving a concert hall after seeing Dolly Parton is almost as fun as being in the show. Imagine singing “9 to 5” along with a herd of excitable people in wheelchairs, Stetson hats, and Goth make-up. For about 10 minutes after the show I wanted to hug my fellow fans—the Bible thumpers, the cowboys, the giggling gay boys, and the hair-flipping sorority girls. I didn’t, but still, that’s unity.