Dolly Parton Rediscovers Her Roots at the Ryman: Concert Review

Wade Payne/Invision/AP
After 12 years away, "Backwoods Barbie" brings her down-home tunes to a storied Nashville stage.

It had been 12 years since Dolly Parton headlined a concert in Nashville when she took the storied Ryman Auditorium stage on Friday, July 31 for the first of two back-to-back benefit shows. Both nights had a purpose: the first, to raise money for the Dustin Wells Foundation and the second for the Opry Trust Fund, but the long Dolly drought was another reason tickets sold out within a few minutes of going on sale. It also didn’t hurt that Parton had announced the billing as a pair of acoustic shows, the folksy nature of the occasion captured in the title “Dolly Parton: Pure & Simple.”

Indeed, on the face of it, the live presentation was fairly sparse by Parton’s standards. Her three accompanists stood on modest, black risers. There was nothing particularly splashy about the backdrop (colored lights illuminating gauzy white curtains) and nary a costume change to be had — just a single dress sequined in pearlescent cotton-candy hues.

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Parton made her entrance singing and teasing the crowd. The folks in the Ryman pews probably presumed she was about to launch into some big production number, but instead, she nudged, “You are my production number.”

Parton started out strumming a sparkly acoustic guitar, then switched to other old-timey instruments, like banjo, dulcimer and autoharp, all of which were coated with her trademark glittery finish. Before the night was over, though, she’d also blown harmonica and wooden flute, hopped on piano and strapped on an electric guitar, her lead guitarist joining her in the instrument swap and triggering programmed patterns on a drum machine that Parton playfully claimed to have picked up at pawn shop just that week “for 49 dollars and 12 cents.”

Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP

It wasn’t so much the plugging in that transported the night a fair bit beyond notions of purity and simplicity, but the way she managed to condense one of the most irresistible and complex arcs of self-realization in country music history into a beguiling 90 minutes.

Right out of the gate, she sang “Backwoods Barbie,” a self-aware country shuffle about embodying both authenticity and artificiality: “I'm just a backwoods Barbie/Too much makeup, too much hair/Don't be fooled by thinkin' that the goods are not all there.”

She told stories to introduce familiar, sentimental classics, speaking of her rural mountain upbringing as one of 12 kids in her zippy, confiding chirp. “No we weren’t Catholic,” she quipped, “just a bunch of horny Baptists and holy rollers.”

Parton set up “Coat of Many Colors” with vignettes about her mother’s resourcefulness, “Smoky Mountain Memories” with the tale of how her dad only made it three weeks in an auto factory in Detroit before he hurried back to his family and Tennessee roots and “Apple Jack” with a description of her rugged, banjo-picking early musical mentor.

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Parton also reminisced about being inducted into Grand Ole Opry on that very Ryman stage in 1969 and having to elbow Tanya Tucker and Loretta Lynn for mirror space in the solitary women’s dressing room. Several songs that Parton sang showcased the down-home side of her music, including the desperate other-woman standoff “Jolene,” the heart-dragging country-blues ballad “The Grass Is Blue,” the railroad ode “Blue Smoke” and the mournful mountain tune “Little Sparrow” (the latter three among the only selections of the night that had been in her repertoire fewer than three decades).

Eventually, Parton worked her way up to her late ‘70s/early ‘80s pop crossover boom — that era when she figured out how to make fans of the masses by harnessing her glossier ambitions and instincts — with lighthearted renditions of “Baby I’m Burnin,” “Two Doors Down,” “Islands In the Stream” and “9 to 5.” She brought the crowd to their feet, shimmying, swaying and clapping along, then finished with “I Will Always Love You.”

Even if one-liners like, “You would not believe how much it costs to make a person look this cheap” were already well-worn — a fact that Parton herself pointed out — they still killed, thanks to her by-now burnished gift for comedic timing and self-deprecating storytelling. Her expressive voice still swooped with ease to the clarion-clear and trilled notes in the rafters. What’s more, she continuously kicked down the fourth wall between performer and audience.

Darting to the back of the stage in her high-heeled pumps to take a sip of water, she apologized, “I took a Claritin earlier and it kinda dried me out.” Setting up an especially hushed song, she reassured the crowd that it would be perfectly fine to proceed with coughing or throat clearing, if anybody had the urge. And to demonstrate, late in the show, that she had an additional microphone clipped to her plunging neckline, she lowered her head and called “Hello,” producing a cavernous echo in the room, and winning lusty laughs. “The Grand Canyon has nothing on me,” she said. Of course, neither do most entertainers, no matter how you frame them.