We sometimes coddle our august musical treasures in their middle or twilight years, offering exuberant cheers for performances high on seasoning, but equally marked by ravages of age and dubiously spent youth. The holy trinity of country music queens from the Seventies hasn't fared terribly well. Tammy's gone, and Loretta only returned recently from a hiatus. Which leaves Dolly. While Tammy's calling card was her wounded soul, Loretta's her pugnacious brass, Dolly Parton was and remains among the most deliciously complex figures Nashville has produced, fusing a keen songwriter's eye with a noggin that knows all the industry angles. And she's dressed for Vegas, becoming that rare icon of creative substance.
And while the talents of some of our legends show signs of erosion, the biz-savvy Parton skillfully steered clear of the booze and pills in her youth. The result is that at age fifty-six her aptitude as a showwoman is acute and utterly undiminished. With no concessions or excuses, her voice remains as bright blue and liquid as her eyes, and it sparkles like her get-up. Parton began her first tour in ten years last night at New York City's Irving Plaza a scant few days after Pride Week. With all apologies to Elizabeth II and her Golden Jubilee, gay inertia from the previous week of celebration abounded, and Parton was the Queen among queens.
Parton's stage show (which also drew Bjork and Debbie Harry) was a dynamic concoction of contradictions: Hee Haw humor and gothic ballads, mountain music virtuosity (courtesy of her denim-outfitted backing ensemble, the Blueniques) and light-hearted use of her gargantuan fingernails as an instrument, sparkling blue dresses with flared, flowing sleeves and spiritual songs of coats of many colors. The emphasis was on Parton's three most recent albums, The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow and the brand-spanking new Halos and Horns, and the songs were perhaps even more luminous live than on record, if for no other reason, due to Parton's still lively stage presence. She has found a winning musical formula, throwing bluegrass, country, mountain music and pop into the pot and stirring up something that ultimately just sounds like her. It's an accomplishment only the greatest of interpreters (Ray Charles leaps to mind) have accomplished. And like Charles, Parton can take a song and rethink it for you, finding the gospel buried in Collective Soul's guitar-burdened "Shine." And she still has the ability to shake the masses with a lively take on the Osbourne Brothers' "Rocky Top," and the crowd favorite "Jolene."
An a capella medley efficiently showcased some of her catchiest Eighties material, original and covers ("Here You Come Again," "Islands in the Stream," "Two Doors Down," "Why'd You Come In Here"), and "9 to 5," a less belligerent take on Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," always gets a rise. And as quickly as Parton could stir up the randy crowd (including a bouncing "He's Gonna Marry Me"), she commanded immediate silence for her tragic fictions "Mountain Angel," "Little Sparrow" as well as "My Tennessee Mountain Home," one of her most beautiful and human songs, inspired by her father's homesick return to the Smokeys after a few weeks working in Detroit. Like the crowd, in the softest moments, the Blueniques would drop out, allowing her voice to fly alone.
Keeping with Nashville tradition, Parton heeded the adage of always leaving them wanting more. She wisked her myriad bundles of flowers to the side of the stage and offered her encore without ever leaving. "I Will Always Love You," one of her most delicate and beautiful originals, had all night to resonate as a well-chosen closer. It's a song that has been unfairly transformed into something resembling workout tape for oversinging, but then Whit's over-the-top take has probably funded Dollywood for the past decade. In Parton's hands, the verses are sung rather than mumbled, and the chorus is more fragile than thunderous. It's a song made timeless by its simplicity, just like the best offerings by the Carter Family or Hank Williams.
Contrary to popular belief, Parton has three, rather than two, robust talents, and all have nothing to do with her brassiere. There is that brilliant career sense that has allowed her to enjoy the iconic radiance of Elvis without the road ending at the toilet. There's a voice that ranks among the most recognizable in music, country or otherwise. And as the author of so many of her own classic songs, there's also a secure legacy that will outlast the luster of her starshine, which seems unthinkable these days, as it still glitters like rhinestones.