KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton kicked off her Better Day world tour in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night (July 17), cheerfully returning to the city where she launched her singing career as a child. Fittingly, proceeds benefited her Imagination Library, which provides free books each month to preschool children.
Very few empty seats remained at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus as the lights dimmed. After a few songs, Parton warmly greeted the crowd and waved at her family and friends from the stage.
“My goodness, look at all of you!” she exclaimed. “I know you’re happy, right?”
It was a question she asked throughout the night, keeping with the theme of her new album, Better Day. Parton wrote every song on the album, and nearly all of them offer an upbeat, can-do attitude that has become one of her trademarks. (You already know what the other two are.)
Her first set lasted about 80 minutes, led by a medley of the classic “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” a new tune called “Shine Like the Sun” and a cover of Katrina & the Waves’ optimistic “Walking on Sunshine.” The blinding stage lights underscored the theme of brightness. And the medley served as a blueprint for the night — something old, something new, something borrowed and something … orange.
This is East Tennessee, remember, where the university’s official color reigns supreme. At the urging of her stylist, Parton slipped into a form-fitting, orange and gold ensemble and led her bluegrass band in a rousing rendition of “Rocky Top.” When she talked about her youth as a singer on the longtime local program, The Cas Walker Show, the older women in front of me nodded vigorously. And as a banjo was draped over her shoulder, lightly scraping her scalp, Parton quipped, “Is my hair still on?”
Although she offered a generous sampling of songs from throughout her career, Parton spent perhaps equal time chatting with the audience and reminiscing about her incredible life. The banter proved to be the highlight of the night. The basketball arena is sprawling, yet Parton’s tales made it seem truly intimate.
She saved most of her hits (other than “Jolene” and the exquisite “Coat of Many Colors”) for the second half, leaving more room for personal favorites in the first half. Truly, it’s a wonderful experience to hear “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Smoky Mountain Memories” as you’re nestled in those very places. She dedicated the latter song to her father, whom she credits for her business sense. Meanwhile, she said her mother always offered her wisdom and a love of creativity.
Parton’s longing for home is one of her most appealing muses. You just can’t imagine a contemporary country artist stopping the show to strum the dulcimer and express her love of mountains.
However, it is slightly jarring to hear her go from Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues” to the Beatles’ “Help!” — which sounds odd at first, but with the bluegrass aspect on both, she pulled it off. After that she offered her spin on Collective Soul’s “Shine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (She’s recorded all of those songs on past records and even won a Grammy for “Shine.”) At times during this segment, she showcased her nimble band, temporarily dubbed the “Saggy Bottom Boys.”
At one point, Parton polled the people to see who was from Tennessee and who wasn’t. It sounded like it was about 50/50, yet she observed, “Tennessee’s got a bigger mouth. I should know, shouldn’t I!?”
She told the audience she was one of 12 children then delivered a few familiar one-liners about being from a large family. (I’ll let her be the one to tell you those jokes.) She also talked about the technological world, translating people’s obsessions with texting and Facebook into something she believed her preacher grandfather would have said: “Get your face in the Good Book and read the text in there.” She concluded the monologue with an a cappella rendering of “Precious Memories.”
After the quiet gospel song, she grabbed a saxophone, informed the audience she was feeling “saxy” and sashayed back and forth across the stage during “Son of a Preacher Man.” They seem like strange bedfellows, but I guess there is a religious connection.
She wriggled down to the piano bench for “Better Day,” which she described as a positive blues song, as unusual as that sounds. “Well, my clothes are just so tight — imagine that!” she squeaked as she made herself comfortable. “I always buy my clothes two sizes too tight, then have them taken in.”
After introducing her empowering new single and video, “Together You and I,” as well as a new love song with her band leader Kent Wells, titled “Holdin’ Everything,” she took a few minutes to promote Joyful Noise, her upcoming film with Queen Latifah. Kris Kristofferson plays Parton’s husband, a choir director who dies early in the film. As a result, Parton’s character wants to take over the competitive church choir, yet one of its longest-standing members (played by Queen Latifah) is striving for the same thing.
Parton then rapped (oh, yes she did) a few hilarious lines about her feminine co-star. In reference to her own bosom, Parton comically declared, “I know the Queen’s got ’em, too/But she don’t use ’em like I do!” Of course, she emphasized that country plus rap equals … crap. However, country plus gospel music is incredibly invigorating when Parton gets involved. She previewed two soul-fluttering songs from the soundtrack, “He Will Take You Higher” and “He’s Everything,” indicating that the movie itself (due in January) will be jam-packed with spiritual music.
After a 20-minute break, Parton returned with a dazzling red dress, a batch of essential hits, fresh material from Better Day and more unexpected cover songs. Yet the most intriguing moment may have been her sterling, spooky mountain ballad, “Little Sparrow.” It’s a guarantee that the crowded UT basketball arena has never been so hushed.
Nevertheless, the sad reprieve was brief.
“Let’s get out of this muck and do something fast!” she commanded. And she entertained the crowd with a chestnut from fellow Tennessee native Tina Turner, then caught her breath and performed her own biggest hits.
Addressing the crowd near the end of the night, Parton noted, “People always say, ’Dolly, you look so happy,’ and I say, ’Oh, that’s just Botox.'”
Naturally the crowd erupted in laughter. And before her final few songs, she thanked the crowd and said, “And you do know that I will always love you.”
Indeed. Her hometown crowd feels the same way.View photos from the concert.