Dolly Parton’s 50th anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member was given the network TV treatment Tuesday night, with the Tennessee native and entertainment icon joined on an NBC special by guests and friends including Emmylou Harris, Toby Keith, Hank Williams Jr., Dierks Bentley, Margo Price, Lady Antebellum, and Chris Janson. Parton, who became a member of the long-running radio show in 1969, reminisced throughout the show about her young life in East Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains as well as her history-making career, which has taken her around the globe countless times since she left home on a bus bound for Music City one day after graduating from high school in 1964.
Among the musical highlights of the two-hour special were the show-opening “Islands in the Stream,” sung by Lady Antebellum, Price’s version of “The Seeker,” Janson’s fiery “Muleskinner Blues,” and Harris’s gorgeous take on “To Daddy,” a hit for her in 1977. But it was Parton’s own rendering of her songs that formed the emotional core of the tribute, and she delivered them in true Dolly fashion, accompanied by self-deprecating humor and sentimental gratitude.
Two of those songs, “Coat of Many Colors” and “Jolene,” have personal stories from Parton’s life so closely associated with them you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with those tales, but Parton manages to make these performances as spellbinding and notable as the event itself. She prefaces “Coat of Many Colors” with the story of its success and how her attempt to give her mother, the seamstress who made young Parton’s outerwear, a portion of the song’s proceeds in the form of a mink coat was rejected in favor of cold, hard cash.
“A lot of it’s based on truth… a lot of it ain’t,” Parton says of her songwriting in the introduction to another of her most enduring hits, the tale of auburn-haired “Jolene.” “It’s based on a thread of truth, but it was so frayed by the time I got finished with it, it didn’t even matter,” she says of the 1973 breakthrough. Whatever the real story, the song has since become of the most iconic in Parton’s canon, and serves as the inspiration for one of the dramatic tales in her just-released Netflix series Heartstrings.
Dolly Parton: 5 Years at the Opry is now available to stream at NBC.com.