Dolly Parton preaches a gospel that’s one part universalist, one part town trollop, and one part Smoky Mountains holler. Her particularly inclusive, distinctively feminine and sex-positive take on religion is sugarcoated enough to appeal to the old guard, but it is also strikingly rebellious in its fluid understanding of gender roles.
While her two-hour set is remarkably high-energy for a woman of 70, and her voice has the same gorgeous bleating lamb lilt it always has, what’s truly remarkable about a Dolly Parton show is the personal philosophy she lays out in between tracks while bantering with the audience. During a pair of shows at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend for her Pure & Simple tour she touted the same values that have been staples in her work for decades and added one more — business transparency.
Pure & Simple is Dolly’s first No. 1 album in 25 years, and she’s happy to play the game that scoring a successful album in 2016 entails. In the first half of her show she gave Warner Bros. a shout out, plugged a forthcoming second Christmas special centered around one of her beloved hits, “Coat of Many Colors,” quipped that she was performing songs from her record to please her label, and even swapped out a television reference from The View to The Talk because she’d be appearing on the show the following day.
Her brazen and unvarnished honesty about the obligatory ties of business disintegrated any of the unease that sometimes crops up when our favorite artists hawk their wares in the name of capitalism. This is a woman who, she’ll remind you, was a girl taken out of the country, who went and bought a bunch of it back up to build a theme park on. But perhaps the most revolutionary topic Parton speaks on is her physical appearance as a woman.
Clad in a sparkling all-white custom suit with lace accents, her signature double Ds front and center, Dolly was just as open about her long history of plastic surgery, adoration of rhinestones, and the fact that her primary style inspiration was a good old-fashioned hooker. In Dolly’s eyes, this is what beautiful is, and pursuing that which the self finds beautiful is the highest good. “I know my heart is real, that’s about the only real thing about me anymore,” she laughed at one point, and later shared another response to her grandfather’s early condemnation of her look:
“Don’t you want to go to heaven?” he asked.
“Well I do grandpa, but do I have to look like hell to get there?” she responded.
She’d perform wordplay on her saxophone with a sly look toward the audience, openly fawn over her past opportunity to kiss Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and declared if she hadn’t been born a woman she’d “definitely be a drag queen.” This short assertion may come off as a joke, but in reality, it’s an extremely uplifting word of encouragement for both women and the queens themselves. Parton consistently aligns herself with the marginalized, whether it be the poor, sex workers, or the queer community, and her heartfelt respect elevates them without pandering or tokenizing.
All of her anecdotes are delivered with the same earnest tone she uses to give glory to God, praise the support her parents provided despite her broke, rural upbringing, and decry those who seek to tear others down. Her political commentary is a winking assertion that she might run herself, because the race could use some more boobs, and her frustration with current events keeps things simple with a complete disavowal of violence.
At 70, Dolly Parton has been a sex symbol for almost 50 years. But as her openness about plastic surgery and her own sexual appetite indicates, that symbolism comes on her own terms. In reality, Dolly has been married for almost 50 years herself, a lifestyle choice that hasn’t stopped her from writing pro-woman songs and appearing in feminist films such as the iconic 9 to 5 throughout her career. It’s this strange mix of traditional and progressive values that gets Parton’s message into the ears of people who actually need to hear it — her much-maligned, often ignored poor Conservative fanbase. It also keeps her work appealing to a new generation of fans who are just beginning to recognize how ahead of her time she truly is.
Her almost 30-song set, broken up into two parts, includes everything from Bluegrass covers to some of her own feisty pop tracks like “Two Doors Down.” Old country classics like “If I Had a Hammer” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” don’t preclude an interpolation of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” that kicks off the second half of the show. And, Dolly is happy as ever to plug her work both old and new. A recent remastered collection of her Trio collection with Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris was released, and she slows things down at one point, bringing in her backup singers to recreate the harmonies that defined those supergroup albums that helped revitalize her career in the late eighties.
Her two-hour show feels brief when you take into consideration the 3,000+ songs she’s composed across over 40 albums and a musical. For further context, Dolly has been nominated for 46 Grammys — the same number as Bruce Springsteen. It’s impossible to talk about women in pop and country music in 2016 without pointing to Dolly’s influence, and that influence has repeatedly put women and their desires, emotions, and ambition front and center.
From the bare bones desperation of “Jolene,” to the devotion of “I Will Always Love You,” Parton has continuously represented all facets of womanhood, never seeking to ignore or gloss over the complicated heartache the female experience entails. One of the show’s many highlights comes in a speech right before “Coat of Many Colors” when she praises the work her mother did to keep the Parton family fed, clothed, and most of all, emotionally supported. She notes that her mother didn’t thrust religion on any of her children, but instead urged them to pursue their own truths, and be themselves to the fullest. Her celebration of God and religion is deeply personal and inclusive, something she reiterates several times throughout the show. It makes sense that it would’ve taken a mother’s urging for a woman like Dolly to emerge with such a celebration of her own femininity, especially in an era when women in the music industry were consistently relegated to the role of sidekick. Dolly Parton is no sidekick.
It’s important to note that Dolly wrote one of the greatest love songs of our time, “I Will Always Love You,” about her decision to leave Porter Wagoner’s side and strike out on her own. Too often, women believe their capacity to love and support others must come at the sacrifice of their own self-love and their own objectives. Dolly’s lifetime of success proves that no matter how disparate your personal influences may be, sticking to your guns and weaving your own values together will result in a body of work that resonates far beyond your own little world. Oh, and it never hurts to throw a rhinestone or two on along the way — any God worth their salt won’t mind.