It’d be easy to ridicule and dismiss Dolly Parton.
For the fake eyelashes, for the fake fingernails, the fake hair, the breast implants, the litany of other visits to the plastic surgeon, and the fact that all those things could otherwise make a 70-year-old woman seem sad and desperate.
Except there’s two problems with going that route.
First off, it’s short-sighted. If you don’t look past the stiletto heels that make her six inches taller and the poofy hair that adds yet another half a foot, you’ll miss out on a country-music legend who somehow – improbably – seems to still be in her prime as a vocalist and an instrumentalist.
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Secondly? If you wait just a few minutes, Parton will gleefully take care of the ridiculing herself.
After opening her “Pure & Simple” concert on Saturday night at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center with the horn-tooting “Train, Train,” she let loose with her first quip: “I appreciate you comin’; I need the money. You know I do. You know why! You’ve heard it before: It costs a fortune to look this cheap.”
And she was just getting started.
Flanked by a simple set, band members Richard Dennison, Kent Wells and Tom Rutledge, and a drum machine that “saved me a bundle … on this tour,” Parton spent 2 hours and 37 minutes (including a 19-minute intermission) putting on a master class in live performance despite being under the weather.
“I’m gonna have to get a little tissue here. I’m having a little bit of trouble, with a little bit of a head cold,” she said just a couple songs into the show, setting up a running joke about selling used Kleenex on eBay, as well as this one: “Thank God it ain’t a chest cold. I’d be like a giraffe with a sore throat, wouldn’t I?”
“Seriously, though,” she continued, “our bus this time of year, you know how you have it on cool one day and heat the next day? You don’t know if it’s gonna be hot or cold, and sometimes it gets a little messy with my head. So forgive me if I have to run back there every once in awhile. I do like my tour bus, though – it beats the tar out of that covered wagon I started in years ago.”
Frankly, it was rather amazing, the sight of this endlessly effervescent septuagenarian strutting with such vigor during “Two Doors Down,” parading with such assurance during “9 to 5,” hopping in her heels with such joy during “I’ll Fly Away,” and flouncing around on stage with such zeal during “Applejack.”
On top of that, Parton’s honey-dipped voice sounded decades younger, and she ably handled enough instruments to fill a Sam Ash: I took note of two different guitars, a dulcimer, an autoharp, a flute, a banjo, a harmonica, a piano and a saxophone, although the arsenal was so dizzying it’s possible I’ve missed something here.
Particularly fun was her rapid-fire spin on the sax through the old “Benny Hill Show” theme, which she nailed before shouting to a duly-impressed crowd: “You have no idea how hard I worked on that. You think I can do this backwards?”
Then she turned her back to the audience and played the same riff.
These jokes, by the way, barely scratch the surface when it comes to her banter with the Spectrum Center crowd. In fact, by my calculations, Parton’s between-song chatter took up nearly an hour on Saturday night. Here are some more highlights.
Discussing both her husband of 50 years, Carl Dean, and the inspiration for “Jolene”: “Back when we first got married, my husband and his dad were in the asphalt paving business. They used to pave church lots and parking lots and driveways... and so my husband was spending quite a bit of time down at the bank, and I thought, ‘Why is he going down there? I know we don’t have that kind of money yet.’ So I followed him down there one day, and he was in there sitting on a bench talking to this beautiful redhead girl. I said, ‘What are you doing down here?’ And he said, ‘Well she’s trying to help me get a deal on a tractor and a roller.’ ... I said, ‘Don’t you think you oughta be talking to one of them hairy-legged men about a tractor and a roller, instead of the homecoming queen?’ I said, ‘You need to get to the house, or it is gonna be your ‘as’ and your ‘phalt.’ ”
On the inspiration for her look: “When I was a little kid … there was this woman in our hometown that … we called her ‘the painted lady.’ She was really the town trollop. … I mean, I was just in awe of her; she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. She had all this pile of yellow peroxide hair on her head, she had bright red lipstick, eyelashes and all that – all painted up. Wore her clothes real tight, and she had long nails. Yeah, she’d be going down the street … and all the men would be whistling at her. And … I said, ‘Oh, ain’t she pretty?’ And everybody would say, ‘Oh, she ain’t nothin’ but trash.’ And I thought, that’s what I’m gonna be when I grow up. So that’s how I got my look. I patterned my look after her.”
On her fake hair: “Sorry I’m up here fussing with my face, but I get my hair hung in my lip gloss and then it gets hung in this microphone, and I’m always up here – it’s tickling my face, and I’m pulling at it. So if you see me pulling my hair, don’t worry about it. It don’t hurt me a bit. Some little old woman in Korea may be screaming, if anything. I’m serious, though, it does kind of get all wrapped around. Oh, did you just get (the joke)? Oh. Well, maybe this is the European hair. I don’t know. It’s mine now.”
On the state of the union, right before capping the night with a rousing rendition of “Hello God”: “I wish we could gather up all this love and all this energy that we’re feeling tonight and put that in some little bottles and just send it all over the world, just to heal all this stuff. ... But they’ve just got us all just scared to death with all this political terrorism. People are just afraid to do anything, really. People said, ‘Oh, it’s the end of time’ … But nobody knows when the end is coming. … That’s a secret known only to God, not a fanatical view. It might be today, and it might be tomorrow, or in a million years or two; but in the meantime, we’ve gotta be happy, we’ve gotta work together, we’ve gotta do better. We’ve got to dream more, care more, do more, be more, and it wouldn’t hurt to pray more, right? So let’s just stop this whole doomsday attitude and just get on with the show.”
Amen, Dolly. Amen.
Dolly Parton setlist
▪ 1. “Train, Train”
▪ 2. “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That”
▪ 3. “Jolene”
▪ 4. “Pure & Simple”
▪ 5. “Precious Memories” (John Wright cover)
▪ 6. “My Tennessee Mountain Home”
▪ 7. “Coat of Many Colors”
▪ 8. “Smokey Mountain Memories”
▪ 9. “Applejack”
▪ 10. “Rocky Top” / “Yakety Sax”
▪ 11. “Banks of the Ohio” ([traditional] cover)
▪ 12. “American Pie” / “If I Had a Hammer” / “Blowin’ in the Wind” / “Dust in the Wind” / “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
▪ 13. “The Seeker”
▪ 14. “I’ll Fly Away” ([traditional] cover)
▪ 15. “Baby I’m Burnin’ ” / “Girl on Fire”
▪ 16. “Outside Your Door”
▪ 17. “The Grass Is Blue”
▪ 18. “Those Memories of You” (Alan O’Bryant cover)
▪ 19. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”
▪ 20. “Little Sparrow” / “If I Had Wings”
▪ 21. “Two Doors Down”
▪ 22. “Here You Come Again”
▪ 23. “Islands in the Stream” (Bee Gees cover)
▪ 24. “9 to 5”
25. “I Will Always Love You”
26. “Hello God”