Dolly Parton: Live and Well

Will Harris

Anyone who thinks Dolly Parton is just the punch-line to a joke about big breasts has clearly never listened to her music. And those who think her music is aimed squarely at simple country folk . . . well, if they got that impression from listening to the stage patter on her otherwise-enjoyable new live album, it's hard to blame them.

Dolly Parton

Live and Well

Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 2004-09-14
UK Release Date: 2004-09-27

In a year where Loretta Lynn has become the Queen of Country Cool with the assistance of Jack White of the White Stripes, folks ought not to forget that Dolly Parton has managed to score some serious critical plaudits in recent years. Perhaps more importantly, Dolly did it without the assistance of any stinkin' alt-rock superstars in her camp.

Since signing to Sugar Hill Records in 1999, Parton has released three solid albums that have found her mining a more traditional bluegrass sound; if you're backdating, that's before O Brother, Where Art Thou? convinced yuppies that bluegrass was the greatest thing since Enya. Dolly's from the mountains of Tennessee, though, and she's worn that fact on her sleeve throughout her career, so, in this instance, it'd be pretty hard for anyone to claim that she was jumping on the bluegrass bandwagon.

Making the comparison between Parton's career renaissance and that of fellow country legend Johnny Cash is an act of simplicity, since both found renewed commercial success by taking it back to basics and recording albums consisting of both originals and covers. The difference lies with the songs they've chosen to interpret.

Johnny was always the Man in Black, so it's no real shock that he'd steer toward the darker, more alternative path, recording tracks by Nick Cave and Depeche Mode.

Who does Dolly opt to cover? Collective Soul and Led Zeppelin.

Why? Because Dolly's more mainstream.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just sayin', is all.

Live and Well is a document of Parton's 2002 tour, released simultaneously on CD and DVD, and, unlike a lot of live albums, this is a proper souvenir of one of her concerts, complete with the chatter between numbers that's so often cut from live records. Obviously, this is good news for her fans, many of who probably weren't able to catch one of those performances (she only did 14 shows); for others, however, it has its ups and downs.

When it comes to the Dolly Parton concert experience, she provides a show that she knows her fans will love, and, vocally and instrumentally, she's in unquestionably fine form. Unfortunately, the between-song patter is occasionally cornpone enough to drive the non-disciples away.

After performing "Rocky Top", she exclaims, "Boy, that's a high note there on the end! My thongs are riding up!" After a laugh, she adds, "Maybe that's why I hit that high note!" At another point, she goes on about various songs she's written that never made it past the drawing board including lyrics like, "I got the biscuits in the oven / Now, get your buns in bed", as well as this couplet:

"Well, I bought this sexy lingerie
Thinking that I might get some action out of you
But every time I take it off, you put it on
Trouble is, you look better in it, too."

These are the jokes, folks.

There's also a bit about how, given her Southern background, her music could be called "hick-hop". This is followed by several excruciating seconds of her backing group, Gary Davis and the Blueniques, performing . . .wait for it . . ."Who Let the Hogs Out". I'd tell you where it appears on the disc (it prefaces one of the songs and isn't indicated on the track listing), but . . . no, let's make it a surprise. If I had to suffer, then, by God, so should you.

Parton's enthusiasm and her high-pitched giggle are just about enough to make up for the fact that these are clearly carefully-rehearsed "adlibs." (I'll let you guess which one, however, remains absolutely inexcusable.) The only real complaint is that there are a few too many of them left on the recording; a bit of editing would've done wonders for the flow of the set. Sure, by leaving such bits in, it's closer to the true concert experience . . . but, after commenting on how bright the lights are and how pretty the audience looks, eventually, it's, like, okay, let's get on with the music, shall we?

Particularly when the music in question is this solid.

Every performance isn't a winner -- "9 to 5" descends into that 9th circle of concert hell: the audience sing-along -- but the majority of them certainly are. Dolly takes the stage to the strains of "Orange Blossom Special", then heads into "Train, Train" before settling into a series of newer songs. In fact, the more recent material proves to be the star of the show, with tracks like "Halos and Horns" and "Little Sparrow" definite highlights. The well-intentioned reinvention of several songs in an a cappella medley ("Islands In The Stream", "Here You Come Again", "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That", and "Two Doors Down") doesn't entirely work, but, insofar as classics go, "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors" are definitely standouts. So are covers of "Shine" (Collective Soul) and "After the Gold Rush" (Neil Young).

Like many a high school dance, Live and Well sets up the end of the evening with the playing of "Stairway to Heaven". Yes, that "Stairway to Heaven". And damned if Dolly doesn't do a great job on the song. Indeed, it's one of the strongest performances on the disc, which is high praise.

The actual finale to the show comes with Parton's signature song, "I Will Always Love You", saved for the inevitable encore . . . though, after the rousing cheers, it's nice to hear her admit that "I wasn't going anywhere, anyway. I just wanted to see if you liked me".

We do, Dolly. It's just that, when you're on a concert stage, we'd rather hear you sing than talk. But other than that, Live and Well is near 'bout everything anybody'd want in a live album, so thank ye kindly, ma'am.


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