Dolly Parton hadn't played a concert since the pandemic began, but that changed Sunday when she took fans on a guided walk through her songwriting history.
Parton headlined the Kiss Breast Cancer Goodbye benefit concert at CMA Theater in Nashville. The event was organized in part by Donna Wells, the wife of Parton's longtime musical director Kent Wells, who was the only player to join Parton on stage. Other performers included Collin Raye, Linda Davis, Dennis Quaid, LOCASH and Todd & Julie Chrisley.
The evening belonged to Parton. Dressed in her fitted, bedazzled hot pink jumpsuit with matching sheer skirt, she held the enraptured audience in the palm of her well-manicured hand for more than an hour.
"I've not done a show in such a long time that I woke up this morning and thought I had a sore throat," she said as she got situated on her stool in the spotlight. "You know how you get when you get scared."
Parton told fans she was going to tell them the stories and sing them songs and that if she talked them to death, to ask her to "shut up."
"We're not going to be dancing any jigs tonight," she said. "We're just going to do our thing."
Parton opened her set with "Pink," a vocal collaboration with Jordin Sparks, Rita Wilson, Monica and Sara Evans, that Parton recorded last year about ending breast cancer.
Written by Victoria Shaw, Erin Kinsey and Jodi Marr, lyrics include: Someday pink will just be a color/ Not a ribbon to remember/A best friend or a mother.
"You don't lose your faith because you lose your hair," she said as she ended the song.
The audience gave Parton a standing ovation.
"That's OK," she replied. "I'm going to be here a long time."
She followed with "When Life is Good Again," which she wrote at the beginning of the pandemic about the things she wanted to do when COVID-19 ended.
But much for of the night, Parton guided fans through the decades of her creativity – beginning when she was too young to write but old enough to dream. Parton made up her first song about her favorite doll. Called "Tassel Top," she remembered her mother, who wasn't sure what was happening, wrote the lyrics down as Parton sang them. Parton imitated her childhood voice and sang the song about the little blond doll.
She told stories about her grandpa, a Pentecostal preacher, then delivered a heart-filled acappella version of "Precious Memories."
Parton remembers going to town with her family as a child. While her mother was in the courthouse, she said she and her siblings stayed outside but weren't allowed to go very far away. She spotted the town tramp, who wore clear shoes with floating goldfish inside.
"I said, 'Mama, ain't she pretty?'" Parton recalled.
"Mama said, 'She ain't nothing but trash,'" Parton repeated.
"That's what I want to be when I grow up," Parton replied.
Her grandfather wasn't supportive of her choice to wear make-up and told her to "get it off her face" if she wanted to go to Heaven.
"I said, 'I do want to go to Heaven, but do I have to look like Hell to get there?" Parton recounted.
Parton told the well-documented story of "Coat of Many Colors" and how her mother taught her that poor was a dirty word in their home because they were rich with love.
She said she wrote "Appalachian Memories" for her daddy about the time he went to work in Detroit when she was a little girl. After two weeks, he missed his family and the mountains so terribly that he returned to their Sevier County home in East Tennessee and never left again.
When Parton was 10 years old, she wrote and recorded "Puppy Love," which she sang for fans Sunday night. She said she moved to Nashville in 1964 and recorded "Dumb Blonde" with Fred Foster. It became her first charting song.
Porter Wagoner heard of Parton and reached out when his female singer quit. Wagoner had the No. 1 syndicated radio show and told her that she wasn't popular enough to join him on it. His solution was for them to do a duet: "The Last Thing on My Mind." Wells covered Wagoner's part.
Parton met her husband Carl as soon as she moved to Nashville. After they were married, she noticed he was spending too much time at the bank. She dropped by the local branch office one day and saw him talking to a beautiful girl.
"He saw me and came out, and I said, 'What are you doing?'" she recalled. "He said he was trying to get a loan for his asphalt and paving company. I said, 'You couldn't have talked to one of those hairy-legged men about a loan for asphalt?'"
The experience inspired "Jolene," which Parton performed.
Her voice filled the intimate theater while people sang along and a few of her more enthusiastic fans danced in front of their seats.
Parton was open about the tension between herself and Wagoner when she told him she was leaving his show to be a solo act.
"He threatened to sue me!" Parton said. "I went home and wrote a song. It's what I do best. Then I went back and told him to sit down and not say anything – if he could manage it. This is how it sounded when I wrote it," she explained before she sang "I Will Always Love You."
The night also included a lively version of "Here You Come Again." The audience joined her on every word with her. She sang her and Kenny Rogers' duet "Islands in Stream" with Wells covering Rogers' part.
She closed with her seminal hit "9 to 5."
"I got to move on and get in the movies," she said. "I had a chance to work with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and we had a big ole hit. I wanted to see what all I could do in this big, wide world."
Parton said she is about to tape an episode of their Netflix series "Grace and Frankie."
"They'll keep you working 9 to 5, but we'll get by," she sang. "This is where I'm supposed to leave and then come back," she quipped. "That really is my last song. I know you all are ready to go home."