Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., June 18, 2016) – Dolly Parton called her concert at Tanglewood on Friday night “Pure and Simple,” but of course it was anything but. Sure, it was a stripped-down affair instrumentally, with only three musicians accompanying her onstage. But this was still Parton the showman at her best, taking the audience on a walk down memory lane – her memories, mostly – as she strung together lengthy anecdotes, mostly of her early life, as the backbone out of which sprung songs from all points in her lengthy career.
The 70-year-old Parton was a child star who first appeared on radio and TV at age 10, released her first single at age 13, and sung at the Grand Ole Opry that same year. Parton omitted this part of her autobiography from her concert patter, favoring tales of her rustic childhood full of stone soup and her grandfather’s religious sense. She did acknowledge escaping her childhood home on the day she graduated high school in 1964, when she moved to Nashville and set in motion one of the most remarkable and enduring careers in country and pop music, and all-around American celebrity.
Mostly Dolly was Dolly, glittering in the rhinestone-studded white dress she wore for the first act, playing numerous instruments including guitar, banjo, and autoharp that matched her dress, all white and sparkly. She kicked off the show with a series of country gems, including “Why’d You Come in Here,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Appalachian Memories” (which could have been the subtitle of the concert), and her signature tune, “Jolene,” in which a new wife worries that her husband might be lured away by another woman (this in spite of the fact that Parton claims to be so happily married for 50 years that she and her husband marked the half-century mark by getting married all over again).
Parton acknowledged her musical roots in Pentecostalism with a four-part harmony version of a very hymn-like “Precious Memories” and “The Coat of Many Colors.”
Parton’s voice seems to have lost none of its power over time – if anything, it’s too strong an instrument, one that at times could have used some taming, more dynamics and control. But Parton is also a phenomenal musician, playing all of the aforementioned instruments plus, on “Rocky Top,” showing off on fiddle and saxophone. Yes, saxophone.
A curious medley which was supposed to be a tribute to the folk-protest movement of the 1960s included snippets of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” which Parton repeatedly credited to Levon “Helms,” not only getting Helm’s last name wrong (she even said hi to Amy Helm, who was apparently in attendance), but misattributing the song’s authorship to the group’s drummer and singer, when it was indisputably written by the group’s chief songwriter, J. Robbie Robertson. The medley misfired, more seriously, with such odd-man-out touches of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” and the chorus to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the latter sung repeatedly.
Besides including a costume change, the second half of the concert featured a bit of a change in mood, too. Parton came out wielding an electric guitar and playing some serious power chords, concluding, “Eat your heart out, Joan Jett.” She paid tribute to Norah Jones by singing her own “The Grass Is Blue” at the piano in an arrangement by Jones, before assaying a few tunes from her “Trio” album with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, which she said was the highlight of her career.
Parton drove it home at the end with her pop-crossover hits, beginning with “Here You Come Again,” through her rendition of the Bee Gees’ “Islands in the Stream” she made famous in a duet version with Kenny Rogers, and the title track to the movie, “9 to 5.” In a sense, all three of these tunes at their heart were disco and R&B numbers, given a pop-country sheen by Parton, but powering her to her greatest popular success.
Then, of course, there was “I Will Always Love You,” which, while Parton had a country hit with it not once but twice, will really always belong to the late Whitney Houston.
It was quite impressive to see Parton so clearly and presently commanding the stage for well over two hours, fully engaged and putting on a grand show. The same can’t be said for many of her contemporaries who continue to tour beyond the point at which they might have otherwise, had they been fully in command of their faculties.
If only she wouldn’t sing so damn loud.