At one point during her sold-out show at the Spokane Arena’s Star Theatre, Dolly Parton offered this bit of self-explanation, “I don’t take myself seriously. But I do take my work seriously.”
Every performer, artist and diva in America would do well to laminate this line and tape it to their mirrors. If they follow this advice, they too might be like Dolly Parton: fun, endearing, without a drop of pretension, yet original and brilliant as well.
Dolly showed off all of these qualities during her rollicking, happy concert Saturday night.
“I especially take my songwriting seriously,” she said at one point.
Which explains why she performed the song “Little Sparrow” with no accompaniment except the fiddle of Jimmy Mattingly. This is a mournful Parton composition, done in the style of an old Appalachian Mountain ballad. It’s long and quiet, performed at the pace of a dirge.
In other words, most singers wouldn’t dream of performing it in an arena, for fear that it would kill the good-time vibe.
Yet “Little Sparrow” was one of the high points of the night, because the song itself is so powerful. “Little Sparrow” sounds like it’s 200 years old, and if it doesn’t make arena crowds jump to their feet, tough. Dolly is justifiably proud of it, and she knew that the best way to show it off was the simplest way.
The other high point of the night was another of her simplest songs, “Coat of Many Colors,” which she performed on autoharp.
Autoharp? How many divas will do that? Yet it was the perfect, understated way to perform a song that evokes her hardscrabble childhood in the Smokey Mountains. You could even imagine it was a Sears mail-order autoharp – except those aren’t white and covered with glitter.
With these songs, Parton made it clear she is one of those rare superstars with a deep respect for the roots of her music. In fact, she has returned to her bluegrass, mountain-music roots with her most recent albums, “The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow.”
Backed by a 10-piece backup band, she performed a number of her bluegrass numbers, including one of the best renditions of “Rocky Top” I’ve ever heard. And she demonstrated that she could also hold her own in a front-porch jam session, performing at various times on fiddle, guitar, pennywhistle, harmonica and five-string banjo (“eat your heart out, Dixie Chicks!” she shouted).
Yet she also covered the other eras of her career, including the early country hits – “Jolene” was a particular crowd favorite – as well as her pop hits.
To complete the package, Dolly also knows how to make an audience laugh. Her entrance was a “Hello Dolly” spoof, complete with staircase. One number, “I Dreamed of Elvis Last Night,” was an elaborate sight gag, complete with Elvis impersonator.
She also delivered some of her famous one-liners, including this impromptu one, when a man in the crowd yelled that she is “hot.”
“Once a hottie, always a hottie,” she said. “Even if it only comes in flashes.”
Later she pointed out once again that “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
She was dressed in a tight blue body suit to which she supplied various “add-ons” to suit the song (i.e., a hippie skirt during “Me and Bobby McGee”). Yes, she still looks cartoon-like, but it doesn’t overshadow the talent.
The show had some surprising song-selections: John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the childlike “I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates.” Both worked surprisingly well.
Yet it was her banjo-fiddle roots music that I’ll remember. Her backup band included the members of the Grascals, whose flair for quality bluegrass was also amply demonstrated in the opening set.