Although she lives just a few miles south of Nashville's downtown Ryman Auditorium, on the rare occasions Dolly Parton is in town, she is, by her own admission, something of a homebody. But this past weekend, the music icon ventured out to play two sold-out concerts at the Ryman to benefit causes dear to her and to her entire road team.
Before Parton hit the stage, her producer and musical director, Kent Wells performed a song he wrote in tribute to his late nephew, Dustin J. Wells, who was killed in a car accident in 2005. Each year since, a concert in his honor is performed by a special guest for the Dustin J. Wells Foundation, with proceeds benefiting Nashville's W.O. Smith School of Music. This year, a group of students from the school also performed a few tunes to warm up the stage for Parton.
On Friday night, with competing concerts nearby featuring Shania Twain, Eric Church and the Monkees, Parton's presence may have contributed to traffic tie-ups but for much of the night, she made concertgoers feel as though they were spending time with her whole family, with a front-porch seat at the Smoky Mountain home she shared with 11 siblings. For an hour and 40 minutes, the incomparable entertainer delivered such early classics as "Jolene," "My Tennessee Mountain Home" and "Coat of Many Colors," sharing the familiar stories of their origins and reminiscing about how her first microphone was a tin can on a stick protruding out of those front-porch floorboards.
Even though the show was billed as Dolly: Pure and Simple, the singer, who became a Grand Ole Opry member onstage at the iconic venue in January of 1969 and last performed a full concert there in July of 2002, displayed the full range of her musical talent, playing nearly a dozen different instruments from mountain dulcimer to electric guitar, each one white and decked out in rhinestones, to match her sparkling white jumpsuit. The most dazzling part of any Parton performance, however, is the singer's golden voice. She'll turn 70 in January, but her vocals remain ageless and her songs timeless.
In addition to the autobiographical songs and stories, Parton included several of her bluegrass-flavored tunes, including the recent "Blue Smoke," "The Grass Is Blue," and a breathtaking version of "Little Sparrow."
But it wouldn't be a Parton show without the high-energy hits, including "Two Doors Down," "Islands in the Stream," "Here You Come Again" and "9 to 5." There was also a fire-inspired medley of tunes, including the singer's own "Baby I'm Burnin'" and Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire." Gospel music was represented, as well, with the oft-forgotten early hit, "The Seeker."
Of course, it also wouldn't be a Parton show without heavy doses of homespun humor and quotable quips, and even though some of her one-liners ("It costs a lot to look this cheap," etc.) are standard, one bawdy, off-the-cuff moment appeared to fluster the singer herself. Referring to Dr. Dennis Wells, the dentist brother of her bandleader and father to Dustin Wells, Parton joked that she would often go to his practice, not because she had any trouble with her teeth but because she wanted some of the nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) he gives patients during procedures.
"I have done some of the greatest fantasizing on [it]," she said. "I have done some of my greatest thinking while Dr. Wells is drillin' my brains out." Gathering her composure she added, "You're never too old to dream."
Parton also had the women in the crowd laughing along to the clever "PMS Blues," which has been a staple of her live show for a number of years.
On Saturday night, the iconic performer returned to the Ryman for a show that benefited the Opry Trust Fund in support of the Grand Ole Opry's older members. Before the first of the two shows, she explained that the "Pure and Simple" concept was borne out of necessity, since some of her regular band members were on the road with other acts, including Garth Brooks.
"I didn't have a band together," Parton told Rolling Stone Country. "It's not one of those big statements, like 'Dolly Unplugged.' We don't have big screens or big production or big sound, but hopefully it will be enjoyable. Especially in a place like the Ryman."
Although the stripped-down, mostly acoustic concerts were mounted as a special occasion, there's little doubt that if Parton were to launch an entire Pure and Simple tour, the results – and fan reaction – would be purely and simply magical.