Dolly Parton. Red Rocks. 07.27.16
Many living legends have found their way onto the stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, but very few have been able to compete with the natural spectacle of the venue. Dolly Parton proved to be an exception to the rule on Wednesday night. At 70 years old, the woman best known for her contribution to country and western music took one look at the grand monoliths towering above her and laughed like a little girl. “C’mon Colorado, let’s get our rocks off tonight!” Still perfectly comfortable playing the town trollop with a heart of gold, Dolly performed an epic two-hour set of hits, classics, and covers, all augmented with anecdotes plucked from her storied past, in an accent that conveyed a southern innocence with a healthy dose of grit.
Grandiose is every way — from her big blonde hair to her perfectly manicured toes; from her shiny made-up face to her silver six inch heels; from her rhinestone-encrusted dresses to her rhinestone-encrusted guitars; from her famously huge breasts to her famously tiny waistline — every feature augmented, every flaw erased, giving the impression of a real-life backwoods Barbie doll. Her appearance onstage was almost blinding. Sheer curtains acted as window dressing, and although her simple 3-piece band were up there as well, Dolly Parton was a beacon of light that negated everything around her. Dressed all in white, with her platinum hair and alabaster skin glowing under an intense spotlight, she resembled a woman half her age. Part beauty queen, part cartoon diva, Dolly was literally beaming with life as she gave her first warning of the evening; “they are filming tonight, so it you are here with someone you aren’t supposed to be, be careful,” she laughed, infecting everyone in the vicinity.
Dolly Parton has built an empire around her image (estimated net worth = $500 million). Aside from her work in the music industry, she is also an accomplished actress, author, and businesswoman. She literally has an amusement park called Dollywood. But none of that matters when it comes to her live performance. Sure, there is a novelty aspect to seeing someone like Dolly Parton in the flesh, but if she couldn’t sing, that’s all it would be. Luckily, her voice has held up as well as her various elective surgeries. “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” found the extremely diverse crowd on their feet, singing and dancing along with a song that came out in the late 80’s, yet sounded exactly as it did on White Limozeen. “Jolene”, presented surprisingly early in the set, came with its own introduction about the girl who tried to steal her husband away, but in failing to do so, made her a lot of money. She performed the song with an effortlessness that was almost surreal. How a 70-year-old woman can sound exactly as she did when she was 28, especially when performing at an elevation of 6,400 feet, is beyond me.
During band introductions, Dolly addressed the vacancy where the drummer was supposed to be. I didn’t follow the entire explanation around why he was absent, but there was something about threatening to put her “rhinestone heel in his bottom,” and then going to RadioShack to pick up a drum machine because “it don’t talk back and I saved a lot of money.” And saving money is always a good thing, because “it costs a lot to look this cheap.” Other self-aware references to her style came in the form of “my heart is the only thing left that’s real,” and referring to herself as the girl “men loved and women hated…a little too good to be really bad and a little too bad to be really good.”
“Pure and Simple” was the sole new song in the set from her upcoming album, and when it finished up, she set down the acoustic guitar and took her place on a small white throne center stage. It was from that position she performed songs and told stories about growing up poor, with eleven siblings, in Tennessee. “We had running water, if we ran and got it.” “Precious Memories” was a song they sang in her grandfather’s church before she left home in 1964. “My Tennessee Mountain Home” was performed with the accompaniment of a dulcimer. “Coat of Many Colors” was dedicated to her mama, who married her papa when she was 15 years old. “Mama would make stone soup with some big stones, but none as big as those,” she said, looking again at the giant rocks framing her audience. She used a whistle during “Smoky Mountain Memories”, before “Applejack” led into a story about “kissing cousins,” and the second warning of the evening, “incest is not the best.”
Another highlight from the first set was the “Rocky Top / Yakety Sax” medley, which found Dolly rocking the banjo like a professional, before giving it up for the saxophone. She wasn’t on the sax for long, but it was an impressive little number…not only because she had the pipes to pull it off, but because she was dancing and shaking her ass the entire time. I have to admit I went into the show with some reservations. The “Pure and Simple Tour” is the most extensive outing Dolly has attempted in years, and I’ve seen much younger artists struggle in the thin air at Red Rocks, but watching her play that saxophone like it was no big thing set all my concerns aside. I remember seeing Loretta Lynn perform when she was in her early-70’s. Her daughter had to help her to the chair she sat in the entire set. I wasn’t expecting Dolly to be that bad, but I didn’t expect her to play a dozen instruments with such youthful exuberance either.
The first set closed out with “Banks of the Ohio”, “The Seeker”, and the traditional hymn, “I’ll Fly Away”. After a short intermission, we were treated to a full second set which included “Those Memories of You” and “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” from her Trio work with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, as well and an extremely soulful rendition of “Little Sparrow”. And then came the hits. “Here You Come Again”, “Two Doors Down”, “Islands in the Stream”, and “9 to 5” had the crowd (who had been transitioning from standing and sitting positions, depending on the song, all night) on their feet, partying like it was 1979 all over again. Rose petal confetti rained down over our heads, as diamonds sparkled on the rocks. It really was quite the scene.
The state of the world was addressed throughout the night in subtle ways, but the overall theme was to love and respect yourself for who you are, and to love and respect others for who they are. So it was fitting when the encore opened with “I Will Always Love You”. It was as heartbreaking as it was uplifting. And the night could have ended there, but Dolly decided to get a little religious on the crowd with “Hello God” and “He’s Alive”. “We should all slow down and pray more,” was the message being conveyed, and although that message didn’t resonate with me personally, I’m never going to complain when Dolly Parton decides to turn Red Rocks into her own majestic church. I may not be a disciple of Jesus Christ, but after my experience on Wednesday night, I am devout believer in Dolly Parton. She might claim her heart is the only thing left that is real, but if there was ever an argument for the existence of a soul, she is it.
Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That
Pure & Simple
My Tennessee Mountain Home
Coat of Many Colors
Smoky Mountain Memories
Rocky Top/Yakety Sax
Banks of the Ohio
American Pie / If I Had a Hammer / Blowin’ in the Wind / Dust in the Wind / The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
I’ll Fly Away
Baby, I’m Burning
Outside Your Door
The Grass Is Blue
Those Memories of You
Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
Here You Come Again
Two Doors Down
Islands in the Stream
9 to 5
I Will Always Love You
Hello God / He’s Alive