It would have been worth the price of admission to see Dolly Parton at Durham (N.C.) Performing Artist Center simply to hear her sing “Little Sparrow,” the mournful, Celtic-flavored tale of warning to “maidens” about heartbreak.
Parton sung the song, the title track from her 2001 blue-grass inspired album, largely a capella and primarily alone, so enchanting the sold-out audience of 4,000 with her angelic voice that nary a whisper could be heard. It was so quiet that I dared not even take notes for fear my pen moving across the paper would be too loud.
But that was just one of the highlights in a two-and-a-half hour show Aug. 2, designed to promote her new set, “Better Day,” as well as serve as a retrospective of a storied career. Parton seamlessly shifted from bluegrass (her banjo-picking version of “Stairway To Heaven” has to be heard to be believed) to traditional country to rock and soul. She even tried to give Tina Turner a run for her money when she not only covered Ike & Tina”s “River Deep, Mountain High,” but attempted to replicate Turner”s sizzling dance moves. Panting at the end as the audience hooted and hollered, she noted, “Y”all are being so nice because you know how hard I”m trying.”
While the icon was talking specifically about her earnest, yet awkward, dancing, the statement could apply to the entire show, which drew a surprisingly wide age demo-maybe she made some younger fans when she appeared on “Hannah Montana.” Parton is an entertainer with more than 45 years of experience under her rhinestones and platinum wigs and the performance felt like she had crammed everything she”s learned about how to captivate an audience into it. If you didn”t like her down-home tales about growing up in the Tennessee hills, hang on a few minutes and she”d be singing Sly & The Family Stone”s “Higher.” If that wasn”t not your thing, she was soon duetting on mega-hit “Islands in the Stream.” Then there were the non-stop litany of jokes about modeling her look after the town tramp she adored while growing up or her thoughts on foreign affairs (“I”ve had a few, but I prefer American men”). It”s a people-pleasing gambit that worked, but more than anything, it was a testament to the sheer breadth of her talent that she could take almost any style and make it work. Except rap.
Yes, Parton even gamely ventured into rap territory, even though, as she surmised, “you take country and add rap and you get crap.” In a long segment that exists largely to plug her upcoming movie “Joyful Noise” co-starring Queen Latifah, Parton threw down a few rhymes about the differences between her and Queen, first explaining to the audience that Queen Latifah was a “gangsta” rapper, in case they didn”t know (which we”re sure is news to Latifah). It was humorous, but seemed about 20 years too late given rap”s domination in the mainstream and its infiltration into country radio via such recent chart toppers as Jason Aldean”s “Dirt Road Anthem.”
Instead, Parton”s time would have been better spent on the moments that brought the besotted audience to its feet time and again, such as during the stirring “Coat of Many Colors,” which she said was her favorite among all her tunes. Even though she”s performed it hundreds of times, she still brought something achingly real and poignant to the song. When she talked about how it was for anyone who had ever been laughed at for being different and how writing the song had lifted the anger she”d felt for all those years about being made fun of for being poor as a child, it was clear that despite the decades and the dollars, she could tap right back into that shame.
And that is the true beauty of Parton: underneath all the fake hair, fake nails and glitter (even her autoharp twinkled-it was as if the whole stage had been sprinkled with Dolly Dust) there is something undeniably real about Parton in her unyielding effort to make a connection with the audience. Just like Elton John”s “Your Song,” Parton”s penultimate song of the night “I Will Always Love You,” despite its original intent, has become her love letter to her fans. And as she showed throughout the evening, she is willing to work very hard for our love.