By Brian Ives
The world is divided today; there are lots of opposing factions of people that just can’t seem to agree on anything. There are hunting enthusiasts and those who hate guns. There’s the LGBT community and their supporters, and then those who (to put it lightly) don’t support that community. Those who go to church, and those who don’t. There are progressives and there are conservatives, and it seems like they have less and less in common than ever before. How do you get them under the same roof to have a conversation?
One way to do it, is to stage a Dolly Parton concert.
At Parton’s show last night (June 26) at Homdel, New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center, people of all ages, colors, sexual orientations and, surely, political leanings sang, danced and cheered together as the iconic singer took the audience through her life and career via songs and also stories, in a show that veered from stand-up comedy to country music concert.
One thing, however, may not have welcome: purist view of what her “Pure and Simple” tour should be. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the title—also the title of her forthcoming album—meant that Dolly and a small musical combo would be doing “unplugged” versions of her hits. Nope.
As she explained early on, her drummer thought he’d figured what “Pure and Simple” meant: “No wigs and no rhinestones.” Her response to him: “Nooooooo.” That drummer, she explained, was back at home trying to extract a five inch rhinestone heel out of his posterior. In his place: a $450 drum machine “that can do anything he can do, and it doesn’t talk back or insult me! So if you’re hearing something that you’re not seeing,” i.e. drum tracks, “that’s why!”
Did that really happen? Who knows. But as another great American writer (Mark Twain) once said, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
And when it comes to Dolly Parton, chastising her for “authenticity,” whether you’re in her band or not, is kind of churlish, and beside the point. What she offers is an amazing show: great stories that usually come with humor, or redemption, or both. For instance, after her classic “Jolene,” she laughed, “I’m glad you remember her; I’ve been trying to forget her for 50 years!” explaining that the song’s title character was based on a woman that worked at a bank that Parton’s then-new husband seemed to visit a bit too frequently. But, as she pointed out, “You can get something positive out of anything!” And, of course, fifty years later, Parton and her husband are still married (Because, she said, she’s been gone for forty-five of those years).
But getting something positive out of dark situations seemed to be a central theme of her show: she told lengthy (but always entertaining) stories about her upbringing, living in a poor family in the Smokey Mountains with her parents and eleven (!) siblings. Her grandfather, a pentecostal preacher, she said, worried for her soul when, at a young age, she was attracted to risqué clothing and style. Parton said that most pentecostal women wouldn’t even tweeze their eyebrows or shave their legs. “Why do I have to look like hell to get into heaven?” she asked, as the audience roared with laughter and approval. “It should be the intent, and content, of your heart. And my heart’s the only real thing I have left!” The line, which also was met with roars, is a big reason why she is so beloved: she wants to look fabulous, she’s a very moral and loving person, and doesn’t mind poking fun at herself. “In all seriousness,” she said, “I don’t think it’s good to make anyone feel badly about their religion or who they love.”
Another highlight was “Coat of Many Colors,” her paean to her humble upbringing. She noted that it was her favorite song of the thousands that she’d written.
But she was equally at home playing her more upbeat pop singles from the ’80s: “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5.” She also seemed comfortable with a variety of instruments (as long as they had rhinestones on them): she switched from acoustic guitar to electric, banjo, autoharp, saxophone (on a cover of, all things, “Yakety Sax,” better known as the theme to Benny Hill) and piano (she adopted Norah Jones’ arrangement of her song “The Grass Is Blue”). She also played a non-rhinestoned penny whistle and harmonica.
She covered her entire career as a songwriter, singing the lyrics to a song she wrote as a young girl, “Little Tiny Tassel Top” (an ode to a homemade doll), but also played two songs from her upcoming Pure and Simple album, the title track and “Outside Your Door” (both of which she wrote).
And while many of the songs featured the aforementioned drum machine (and, it seemed, other backing tracks as well), she showed that she was fully able of going old-school when she wanted to. “Banks of the Ohio” and a medley of “American Pie,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Dust in the Wind” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” featured just Parton and her three musicians at the front of the stage. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” saw the quartet going completely a cappella.
About fifty miles away and a few hours earlier, New York City hosted the LGBT Pride Parade; surely somewhere else within 50 miles there was an NRA event of some sort. The Venn diagram of people who would attend both is probably a small one, but many attendees of either might have come to Dolly Parton’s concert afterwards. And that’s no small thing in America these days. And surely, Dolly would welcome those dressed in the rainbow, or in camouflage. Just don’t tell her what to wear, and for a few hours, everyone can get along.