Dolly Parton became the first-ever country artist feted at the annual MusiCares “Person of the Year” dinner Friday night. It was a full evening of tributes, duets and at least one surprise reunion of friends: the hit-making trio of Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
Ronstadt’s public appearances have been rare since her 2012 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, but her moments onstage with Harris honoring Parton spoke to the enormous affection Dolly’s peers have for her. Willie Nelson leaned into the mic to say, “We love you, Doll.”
Parton was praised for her work in music, as an actress, for significant charitable giving, and for her role as a timeless symbol of self-determination. In her acceptance speech, Parton declared: “I have actually worked with so many wonderful men, and I’ve never met a man that I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man whose ass I couldn’t kick if he didn’t treat me with the right respect.”
Reuniting with Harris and Parton clearly had Ronstadt in good spirits, laughing at herself after she bumped into the podium and sent the clear, brick-like MusiCares trophy to the floor. Parton helped pick it back up with a good-natured shrug.
Every February, the Person of the Year dinner is a highlight of Grammy week, spotlighting a major artist while raising money to aid musicians and their families with urgent health needs. In recent years, the honor has gone to such iconic artists as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Carole King. All in all, MusiCares has raised more than $140 million at the tributes, including $6.7 million at the Parton event.
“We hillbillies need MusiCares too,” Parton noted in comments that were typically spirited, heartfelt and scattered with jokes. “We may not have sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but two out of three ain’t bad.”
Performers included Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile, Pink, Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Norah Jones and Miley Cyrus, Parton’s goddaughter. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sang a gentle and romantic duet on “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” a song written by Pebe Sebert and Hugh Moffatt, and made a Number One country hit by Parton in 1980. The couple closed the song with a kiss.
Parton herself only performed one song at the event, “Coat of Many Colors,” sadder than the original this time, with producer-songwriter Linda Perry on acoustic guitar, and managed to steal the show from all who came before.
Parton has been an icon of music and pop culture for decades, deeply rooted in the best traditions of country music while also transcending any limitations of genre. At 73, the spark and warmth underlying her work was in full force during her moments onstage.
Pink began the musical performances with “Jolene,” one of Parton’s most covered songs, embraced by acts from the White Stripes to Miley Cyrus. On Friday, Pink’s reading was soaring and hurt, accompanied by acoustic guitar, as a story unfolded in just a few lyrics: “He talks about you in his sleep/There’s nothing I can do to keep/From crying when he calls your name, Jolene.”
Hosts of the night were Little Big Town, who revealed some personal connection to the singer. Phillip Sweet admitted to once dressing up like Parton as a child, and had the snapshot to prove it. Kimberly Schlapman named her second child after the singer, and showed a picture of the baby in Parton’s arms.
They also related some telling stories from Parton’s life and career — including Elvis Presley’s offer to record her “I Will Always Love You,” if she would just sign over half-ownership of publishing rights to the song. Later in the evening, Yolanda Adams delivered a soaring performance of the song, echoing the Whitney Houston recording, which stayed at Number One for 14 weeks.
Throughout the night, the big screens shared clips of old TV appearances stretching back through the decades, beginning in the 1960s and tracing Parton’s evolution of big platinum hairstyles. One clip from 1978 had Johnny Cash and Ronnie Milsap announcing her win for CMA Entertainer of the Year.
For “Here You Come Again,” Perry and Kacey Musgraves sang to the wounded twang of pedal steel. Musgraves wore elegant white, Perry a fringed purple cowgirl outfit. “We love you, Dolly,” Perry said at the end. “We want to be like you when we grow up.”
Mark Ronson played understated electric guitar for a Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes duet on “Islands in the Stream,” a song written by the Bee Gees and made a Number One pop hit by Parton and Kenny Rogers in 1983. “Sing with us,” Mendes told the crowd. The take was pretty and upbeat, but with few sparks between him and Cyrus.
Mavis Staples led a stirring performance of a gospel-powered “Not Enough” with a huge choir of singing, clapping and testifying backup singers, as she sang a duet with Leon Bridges. Pianist and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste sat in.
Chris Stapleton arrived with sleeves rolled up for a tough-minded “9 to 5,” even if his rough edges were a strange contrast with the band’s jazzy piano melody and horns. Playing electric guitar, the Nashville singer added extra punch to his delivery, growling: “What a way to make a livin’/Barely gettin’ by/It’s all takin’ and no givin’.”
“This is the best night,” Cyrus declared lovingly. “We just get to hear Dolly songs all night long.”