PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton hosted three sold-out benefit concerts at her Dollywood theme park over the weekend, raising money for the Imagination Library with two shows on Saturday (Aug. 16) and one on Sunday (Aug. 17). She’s been actively touring the U.S. and the U.K. over the last few months, following a back injury, but there’s nothing quite like seeing her play on her old stomping ground in east Tennessee.
Throughout the Sunday afternoon concert, the vivacious entertainer dedicated songs to her aunt Dorothy Jo and her uncle Louis (celebrating his 75th birthday), as well as several cousins and a handful of kids in her extended family. Of course, when you’re in Parton’s presence, she makes you feel like a longtime friend, especially for those who have been fans since “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” were first popular in the early 1970s. One of the highlights was watching vintage clips of her concerts on the backdrop while she performed “Here You Come Again.” It’s incredible to see how she can fit in just about anywhere.
And the hits kept on coming throughout the show, including “Two Doors Down,” “9 to 5,” “Islands in the Stream” and “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” Parton always likes to promote her new album, too, so she strutted her way through a lot of material on Backwoods Barbie, released earlier this year. Flanked by two band members, she even perfected the synchronized guitar swing on the “Oooh! Oooh!” on “You Drive Me Crazy,” a remake of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.”
Parton told the audience that on a long bus ride, she passed the time by gluing rhinestones on her new guitar. “I leave no rhinestone unturned,” she quipped. She also played a little bit of fiddle, sparkling from more rhinestones, and shouted out, “I’m Alison Krauss!” As the afternoon progressed, she proceeded to play banjo, harmonica, piano (for “The Grass Is Blue” — which originally had a bluegrass arrangement), dulcimer, pennywhistle and tambourine. Many people in the crowd gave her a standing ovation following her rendition of “Coat of Many Colors” on her rhinestoned autoharp.
Early in the concert, a child yelled out, “I love you, Dolly!” So the singer took a moment to say thanks and to talk about the Imagination Library, her charity which promotes reading by providing free books to kids until they reach kindergarten. The program, which started locally in her native Sevier County, is in nearly every state now, as well as Canada and England. It’s staggering to think that a half million kids receive a book every month because of her idea.
Parton is a natural storyteller, and her own children’s book will be hitting the shelves soon. She said if she’d stayed in the area, she’d probably be like everybody else in the holler and get married and have 12 kids — or, she added, stay single and have 12 kids. She also said that when people find out she’s one of 12 kids herself, they ask her if she’s Catholic. “I tell them, ‘No, my parents were just horny hillbillies.’”
Joking around with the audience, Parton said that she usually keeps all the money for her concerts because it takes a lot of money to look that cheap — a familiar line that still gets a lot of laughs. “I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s still true!” she chirped. She also recalled a recent visit to Scotland, where she met a man wearing a kilt. And she told him, “If you wore that where I come from, that could you get you kilt!”
Corny jokes aside, Parton kept up the momentum throughout the two-hour concert, working both sides of the stage on many songs but standing still for others. When she plucked stray hairs away from her face, she confided, “If you see me pull hairs out, don’t worry, because I don’t feel it. But some woman in Korea is screaming her head off.”
Drawing on the old English ballads that her mother would sing around the house, Parton sang “Dreaming On” (also from Backwoods Barbie), which briefly lent a mythic vibe to the concert. She followed that with a rousing gospel medley and a touching dedication to the late gospel singer Dottie Rambo, whose life and career were commemorated over the weekend in Dollywood’s rose garden.
Although the song didn’t end up being a big hit, everybody seemed to recognize “Better Get to Livin’,” but when Parton mentioned Hannah Montana (in which she plays Aunt Dolly), another segment of the audience perked up. Parton was something of a child star herself and sang the first song she ever recorded, “Puppy Love,” when her Uncle Bill Owens took her into a recording studio for the first time. (Owens was also in the crowd and appears regularly at Dollywood.)
Although I don’t usually like a cappella singing, I can make an exception for this concert’s version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” which is one of my favorite songs in Parton’s repertoire. She gathered the nine men in her band (including her cousin Richie Owens) to sing it with her, with everybody snapping their fingers in rhythm. It sounded more like barbershop than a heartbreaker, but having 10 people singing in harmony is something I don’t encounter very often. Then she stepped out for a solo version of “Little Sparrow,” accompanied by her two female back-up singers and Richie Owens on Dobro. Her powerful voice resonated throughout the Celebrity Theater, causing a hush to fall over the crowd.
After wrapping things up with her signature hits, she stepped out on stage one last time to perform “Jesus and Gravity,” a rousing spiritual number that she also sang on American Idol. On the way out, vendors were selling T-shirts that proclaimed “Dolly for President.” That might be a stretch, but if I were a candidate myself, I know who my first call would be for the inauguration party.