Written by Michelle Ivey
The first time I saw Dolly Parton in concert was 11 years ago at Dollywood. It was, in fact, my first concert ever. So when Dolly announced she was coming back to Arkansas (a place she hasn’t been since 2008), I immediately knew I wanted to be there.
I arrived and settled into my seat in the lower bowl of the arena, with a decent view of the stage. After a few minutes of making sure I had everything I needed, I ran to the front row before the show started, to ask some of the people who met Dolly some questions.
One of the fans I met was Melvin Carter, who was on his fourth time meeting Dolly. She remembered him! Others included Shauna and Henry, who met Dolly at a book signing in the early 90’s, Kristi, who met Dolly for the first time (“Good eye contact, just what I expected”) and Debra and Amy Wilkinson. The latter had met Dolly one other time, while the former was on her first meeting but had seen Dolly and Kenny on tour in the 80’s. It was fascinating hearing about these people who have loved Dolly their whole lives, and how even after all this time she can still connect with her fans and make them feel welcome. Fame has certainly not gone to her head, and she knows who butters her bread.
By far the best story I got was from Lesa and Tracy. This was both of their first times meeting Dolly, and they both loved I Will Always Love You. Tracy later provided us with some amazing photos from the front row. For getting meet and greets, Lesa told Dolly, “I’m gonna have to give my husband a piece of tail for the rest of his life.” She said Dolly squealed and laughed so loud – she wasn’t expecting that! “Probably so,” Dolly replied. “Reck’on I oughta keep him?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, I do.”
After that, it was time for the show to start!
Dolly only had three men in her band – longtime friend and backup singer Richard Dennison; bandleader, record producer, and Arkansas native Kent Wells; (Dolly quipped that he had more relatives than she did) and Tom Rutledge. The three men could be heard singing “Hello Dolly…” almost like they were angels calling her to the stage. Out came Dolly in a beautiful white dress with rhinestones all over, and she began singing ‘Train Train’. She was enthusiastic; she lit up the entire room.
She introduced her new song ‘Pure And Simple’ from her new album, and let us know there would be some new songs as well as old favorites. “But even the old songs were once new,” she commented.
Pulling out the Mountain Dulcimer, Dolly told us how she rhinestoned it up: “It didn’t look like this when I bought it!” It was white and sparkling. Next she told us how when she went to Nashville, she was so lonesome and homesick, but she couldn’t go back home! She had said she wasn’t coming back until she had made something of herself. She was eating ketchup and mustard soup, and feeling really homesick when she wrote her first song about home, ‘Tennessee Mountain Home.’ She took us back in time to another place and another time with that song.
Afterwards, a man in the audience shouted something at Dolly and she pointed in his direction and said, “Hey. I told you to wait in the truck!”
She told us stories from her childhood, such as her mother making Stone Soup. She says her mama would know when one kid needed a little extra attention, so she’d send all of them out to get a pebble. She would ooh and aah over each stone, and pick the one from the child who needed the most attention to be just right for Stone Soup. Following that, she played ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ for us.
Dolly then told us about her Daddy, and how he left home for two weeks to get some work done up North. Well, he just couldn’t stand being away from his family that long, so he came back. She wrote ‘Smoky Mountain Memories’ (originally ‘Appalachian Memories’) about that time in her father’s life.
Taking us through her youth, she remarked, “When I came to a certain age, I wanted me a boyfriend. There was just one problem. All the good looking boys were related to us. In this case, incest was not best. You better go looking somewhere else for all that.” She segued into Rocky Top from here, and pulled out a small rhinestone-covered saxophone. She played ‘Yackety Sax’ on it, proving that Dolly can play any instrument she puts her hands on. She wiggled and she danced, and she didn’t have a care in the world. Richard Dennison bet her she couldn’t play it backwards. She exclaimed, “You’re gonna put me on the spot in front of all these people!” Then, without hesitation, she turned her back to the audience and played it again! When she was done, she put the sax down, and tried to catch her breath. She began just talking, stalling for time she said. “As big as my lungs are you think I’d be able to catch my breath!”
While she was catching her breath, Dolly told us that she ordered a beat machine, and Kent Wells had helped her pick it out. She wasn’t real big on technology; she’s still trying to catch up.“My band members tell me, ‘You’re gonna have to learn how to communicate more effectively than when you first started, because these carrier pigeons are stinking up the bus!'” Next she told us she was thinking about running for president, and the crowd went wild! “Well, I got enough hair, and they sure could use some more boobs!” She quipped. She thanked everyone for having that kind of faith in her, and had this to say about the current election: “Like watching the OJ Simpson trial, you believe whoever spoke last.”
She regaled the audience with a 60’s medley, telling us the story about the town tramp comparing her to the “hoes on the Jerry Springer show.” She explained how she went round and round with her grandfather, who was a preacher. “Don’t you want to go to Heaven?” He reportedly said. “Yeah, but do I have to go looking like hell?” She apparently responded, with her trademark sense of humor. According to Dolly, the Pentecostal women aren’t allowed to shave or pluck their eyebrows, which is why they wear their skirts long and their bangs long!
She ended the first half of the show with ‘The Seeker’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ Twenty minutes later, she came back in a beautiful gold sparkle jumpsuit. She sang a new song from her new album, and told us about a new Trio album coming out in September! It’s going to be chock full of music they had shelved, as well as all the songs they released.
She sat at a beautiful white piano and explained that she was going to sing a song that Norah Jones recorded, and that she reckoned she’s allowed to mess it up because she wrote it! The song in question was ‘The Grass Is Blue.’ She also sang Little Sparrow, and added a new verse to it: “If I had wings, I’d fly away, if I had wings, if I had wings.” She sang this with so much emotion, I wondered if she was actually going to sprout wings and fly away.
She sent some of us on our way with ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and then went backstage. Shortly after she came back up, and told us that since we were such a good crowd she’d do us another one. She told us how she talks to God, and prays for everyone. She sang ‘Hello God,’ and then segued into ‘He’s Alive,’ the closing song.
After the concert I ran around the back to watch the bus leave and met a girl named Laura from Denmark. This was her fourth time seeing Dolly and her first time meeting her. She is 21 and spent her college savings just to meet Dolly. She said she was so awestruck she couldn’t even remember her own name.
It was a great show, and Dolly certainly can still entertain at the age of seventy. The same old jokes are still funny time after time, and with each retelling of old stories, it feels new anyway. Not many artists are still performing at age 70, but Dolly is still just as bright and vibrant as she was fifty years ago.