As she strutted across the stage, the fringe on her hem bouncing against her knees in tempo with “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” Dolly Parton sent the subtle message that no one will ever out-Dolly her.
Wearing a headset microphone and a dress that sparkled so gaudily it could guide a plane in for landing, Parton slipped easily into the role of veteran pro.
Her voice – a marvelous instrument that hasn’t diminished a whit in 70 years – hit all of the notes on “Jolene.”
Her other gift, that of natural storyteller and infinite gabber, was on display often and early as she talked about her upbringing with 11 siblings and a tireless mother before the emotional “Coat of Many Colors” and her rough-edged, simple-life-loving father as a preface to “Smokey Mountain Memories.”
The Dolly-isms she dispersed between songs – “I never leave a rhinestone unturned!” “You should always be proud of who you are!” “We should love each other no matter who we are or how we are!” – were always punctuated with her infectious guffaw or a knowing glance.
Parton hasn’t toured extensively in more than 25 years, though she played Atlanta a handful of times the past decade, most recently in 2011 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.
This “Pure & Simple” excursion, named for her new album due in August, will keep her on the road through the end of the year with more than 60 dates. The sold-out crowd at Infinite Energy Center in Duluth Saturday night should feel fortunate that they experienced Parton on the second night of what is sure to be an exhausting run.
Another nod to Parton’s professionalism is that, a few early echo-y vocal issues aside, her 2 ½-hour show (including a 20-minute intermission), unfurled without a hitch. She might, however, want to consider adding a video screen somewhere on stage to give those in the upper decks a better glimpse. Even with her sparkly ensembles and pouf of platinum hair, the diminutive Parton can only be seen but so far away.
Her longtime band members Richard Dennison, Kent Wells and Tom Rutledge are a taut, polished bunch capable of crowding around a microphone with her to harmonize on a medley of other famous hits – “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” among them – and stay out of her way when she unleashes a breathtaking vocal, as on “Little Sparrow.”
Rutledge stayed in lockstep with Parton on the hoedown “Applejack” and the three band members served as worthy fill-ins for Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt when Parton revisited her Trio days with “Those Memories of You” (she also noted that a third Trio album of songs the women recorded years ago will be released in September).
There is much to admire about Parton, from her songwriting to her business acumen. But witnessing her in concert is a reminder of her proficiency as a musician. While her saxophone playing was a bit suspect, it was Dolly all the way on the fiddle during “Rocky Top,” the dulcimer (rhinestone studded as well, of course) on “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” the autoharp for “Coat of Many Colors,” the electric guitar on “Baby, I’m Burning” and the piano for “The Grass is Blue.”
On the latter, Parton joked that her version might not be as graceful as Norah Jones’, who covered the song in 2003 for a Parton tribute album.
“But it’s my song and I reckon I can screw it up if I want to!” she said.
Parton’s mastery of the key change was showcased on the slick ‘70s-era pop of “Two Doors Down” as well as the title track of her first platinum album, 1977’s “Here You Come Again,” one of Parton’s rare hits that she didn’t write herself (that honor goes to the incomparable Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who know a few things about melody).
The giddy crowd was already popping up and down throughout the show, but the megahits “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5” prompted the expected sing-and-dance-along.
As she totes her Tennessee twang and her astounding collection of country-pop tunes around the country this year, Parton will solidify what so many already know about her – she is truly one of a kind.