Last Night: Dolly Parton At Verizon Wireless Theater

Dolly Parton Verizon Wireless Theater October 11, 2011

Dolly Parton seems like the kind of person so determined to make sure her audience has a good time, she's not above putting them to the thumbscrews to make sure that happens. Luckily, it didn't come to that Tuesday at a near sold-out Verizon Wireless Theater.

Parton (re)introduced herself to the adoring crowd by saying that she loves playing in Texas because every movie she's been in -- or close enough -- her character has been from the Lone Star State. And her two-hour-plus set was a lot like Texas weather: Don't like it, stick around a few minutes and it'll change.

So if the uptempo gospel-pop of "He's Everything" might have made some of the less spiritually inclined on hand squirm, the almost a cappella Smoky Mountain harmonies of "Precious Memories" could have made believers out of them. They should have, for sure.

If her latest bid for country chart success, the glossy take-a-hand tune "Together You and I," didn't quite work, there was always past triumphs "Jolene" and "Here You Come Again," which most assuredly did. "Holding Everything," a duet with producer/bandleader Kent Wells, may be the real hit off her latest album, Better Day, anyway.

Even Dolly acknowledged that her version of "Stairway to Heaven" -- presented in abbreviated bluegrass form Tuesday, with several verses lopped off -- may have been better left in the hands of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, et. al. It's her husband's favorite song, she said, but when he heard her version, he wondered if it should have been called "Stairwell to Hell" instead. It wasn't that bad, but her takes on both the Beatles' "Help!" and Collective Soul's "Shine" survived the classic/modern-rock-to-bluegrass transition much, much better.

Dolly never took off that coat of many colors she put on all those many years ago -- neither she nor Aftermath would be foolish enough to reveal how many -- and her chameleonic nature is key to her considerable charm. And although her covers of "River Deep, Mountain High" and "Son of a Preacher Man" were nothing to sneeze at, the best parts of Tuesday's show weren't when she was putting on Tina Turner or Dusty Springfield's heels, but dipping into her own history.

That started with honoring her mother on "Coat of Many Colors." Equally affecting, if not more, was her tribute to her dad on an "Smoky Mountain Memories," presented as a stock-still Celtic ballad with her drummer's solemn taps on a bodhran and Parton's own high-lonesome tin-whistle melody. Likewise, you could have heard a feather drop during "Little Sparrow," her warning to all the "tender young maidens" out there, and a rip-snorting "Muleskinner Blues" had everything but the cruel crack of the driver's lash.

As far as she's come from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Parton is much prouder of her Appalachian roots than the ones on her head -- "Is my hair still on?" she remarked early on after a near-collision with a band member. There were 10, so it was pretty crowded up there, but as many instruments as Parton herself played - guitar, banjo, harmonica, autoharp, saxophone and piano, to name a few -- it's a wonder she needed so many.

But Dolly is every inch a shameless pop star too, unafraid to bust a rhyme promoting her upcoming movie with Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise, with a few bars that peaked when she called the two of them "Biggie Smalls." And no one else could have piled on the pathos of both "9 to 5" and "I Will Always Love You," and yet made her two biggest hits sound as true to life -- if not down to earth -- as the songs she wrote when she was back in Tennessee dreaming of the kind of stardom she's enjoyed for nearly four decades without taking a single night of it for granted.

That's why, of her many, many, many quips and one-liners Tuesday, the one that hit the bullseye came late in the set came while she was introducing another recent keeper, "Backwoods Barbie." "The only thing real about me is my heart," she said.

And, nine times out of 10, her music.

Personal Bias: Proud daughter of Tennessee she is, if Dolly Parton wants to say she's from Texas -- even in the movies -- I have no problem with that.

The Crowd: About as spot-on a sampling of Southeast Texas demographics as I've ever seen at a show -- except about 97 percent white.

Overheard In the Crowd: "No way!" -- as "Stairway to Heaven" started.

Random Notebook Dump: As the lights came up after "I Will Always Love You," I saw a woman whose red-rimmed eyes betrayed the fact that she'd been crying them out just minutes before. No amount of built-in critical cynicism is a match for that.


Walkin' On Sunshine (Katrina & the Waves cover) Baby I'm Burning Jolene (White Stripes cover) just kidding! Rocky Top Dueling Banjos/Muleskinner Blues Help! (Beatles cover) Shine (Collective Soul cover) Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin cover) Tennessee Mountain Home Precious Memories Coat of Many Colors Smoky Mountain Memories Son of a Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield cover) Better Day Together You and I Holding Everything I Wanna Take You Higher (Sly & the Family Stone cover w/new lyrics) He's Everything


White Limozeen 2 Doors Down Backwoods Barbie Sacrifice Little Sparrow River Deep Mountain High (Tina Turner cover) Here You Come Again Islands In the Stream 9 to 5 I Will Always Love You

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