December 5, 2016
At least part of Dolly Parton’s enduring appeal can be linked to the ancient magician’s art of misdirection: The jokes fly by so fast during one of her concerts that it conceals not just the astonishing musical brain underneath that towering blond wig of hers, but what a deeply spiritual person she is. The rest is down to Dolly herself; as she told Monday’s sold-out crowd at NRG Arena, “My heart is the only real part about me.”
Ain’t that the truth. When a fan shouted out “We love you, Dolly!” midway through the show, she shot back, “I told you to wait in the truck.” Parton has so thoroughly integrated her humble origins in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains into the role she plays onstage, onetime Grand Ole Opry queen Minnie Pearl’s down-home zaniness with a dash of 9 to 5 co-star Lily Tomlin’s dry wit, that her show is entertaining even during its most emotional moments, of which there are more than Parton’s bedazzled personality might lead one to believe.
A week earlier, wildfires had devastated the area near Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where Parton grew up, and her people were obviously on her mind. So after she opened with a couple of uptempo songs and a few jokes at her husband’s expense after “Jolene,” Parton’s voice caught while she talked about the fires and the families who had lost everything, but quickly changed to a note of faith that the Lord will help them find the determination and resources to bounce back. (Parton is more than happy to do her part, announcing a telethon set for next Tuesday that will raise money for the My People Fund she started last week.) Then she and her band sang an old hymn, “Precious Memories,” done a cappella and so beautifully it was easy to picture a little white church somewhere in a backwoods holler, resonating with the sound of Sunday-morning singing.
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Besides the uptempo opening of both sets Monday — a full-throttle bluegrass version of Blackfoot’s “Train, Train” into “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” at the outset, and then a rockin’ medley of “Baby I’m Burnin’,” “Great Balls of Fire” and Alicia Keys’s “Girl On Fire” after intermission — and the parade of pop hits at the very end, the evening was heavily weighted toward bluegrass and gospel, befitting its designation as the Pure and Simple Tour. Its origins, Parton explained, lay a couple of years back in the prior commitments of some of her more peripheral band members, which left her to play some benefit shows with only an inner circle of Tom Rutledge, Richard Dennison and Kent Wells. In turn, that resulted in the album of the same name, released this past August, that Parton recorded as a 50th-anniversary gift to husband Carl Dean.
That left Parton and her band alone onstage with just five backdrop curtains, minimal lighting and the strapping stagehand handing instruments to her. (“I’m married, not blind,” she cracked to the crowd.) No matter how many wisecracks Parton tosses off onstage — and there’s always one right around the corner — it could never obscure how completely she has absorbed all the old songs her mother sang to her when she was a child. Parton is just a fundamentally musical person, with plenty of her Pentacostal-preacher grandfather left over in her ability to work a crowd.
During the two and a half hours she was onstage Monday, Parton played acoustic and electric guitar, plus piano, banjo, dulcimer and autoharp. She also broke out a petite saxophone to honk through the Coasters’ “Yakety Sax.” Parton was nursing a slight cold Monday, which was notable only because her brief loss of breath afterward only highlighted how effortless she made everything else look. It also presented yet another opportunity for a joke: After blowing her nose, Parton held up the tissue and asked, “Anybody want to sell it on eBay?”
This show was long, but Parton is such an engaging entertainer, and the music was so absorbing, that it flew by quicker than just about any I have seen in recent memory. Therefore, the climax of “Two Doors Down,” “Here You Come Again,” “Islands In the Stream” and “9 to 5” arrived almost as a surprise. Here, Parton proved that even songs by some of the biggest hitmakers in pop history — the Bee Gees, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil — are no less hers than the ones she wrote herself. That left only “I Will Always Love You,” her farewell to former stage partner Porter Wagoner that Parton said had long since come to stand for the bond between her and her fans. The spell it still casts over a crowd was obvious from the way people leapt to their feet and the hush that descended over the room — almost like we were all at church. The ushers in our section of the floor had been working hard all night to keep people out of the aisles, but by then their hearts weren’t really in it anymore.