There is something utterly unbelievable about Dolly Parton.
From the blond wigs and the fake nails, to the painted-on face and more rhinestones than should be legal, Parton could easily be a caricature. Even she embraces the fake, cracking jokes about Botox without a hint of shame. “I am a self-made woman,” she said at one point, “and I have the doctor bills to prove it.”
Because what’s real about Dolly Parton, and what really matters about Dolly Parton, is that she is an unbelievable talent. Not only is she one of the greatest songwriters of our time, she has a voice that sounds as gorgeous and pure as it did when she was recording some of her earliest hits in the 1960s.
That voice (and the rhinestones - my God, they were everywhere) was on vivid display Thursday on the outdoor stage at Northern Quest in front of a sold-out crowd. The night was chilly, and Parton was fighting a cold, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. At age 70, it would be easy to forgive her for playing a dozen or so of her biggest hits and calling it good after 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, she took a break, changed her outfit, and launched into a second set loaded with hit after hit.
Along the way, she was chatty and funny and even inappropriate, telling jokes on herself and sharing the backstories behind the songs. She reminisced about her childhood and her family, talked lovingly of her parents and often referenced Carl, her husband, to whom she’s been married 50 years.
Parton was ably backed by three musicians and a drum machine – she joked that her drummer was left at home for daring to suggest she tour without the wigs and makeup. “I couldn’t sing without all this gaud on me,” she said.
Parton hit the ground running with the bluegrassy “Train, Train” and the honky-tonk flavored “Why Did You Come in Here Looking Like That,” before diving into the iconic “Jolene,” a song inspired, she told the crowd, by a bank teller who used to flirt with her husband. “I made a lot of money off that little song, and I did not take it to the bank where Jolene was working.”
The first set then slowed a bit, as Parton played storyteller. She beautifully performed “Precious Memories,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” the heartfelt “Coat of Many Colors” and “Smokey Mountain Memories” before breaking out the banjo for an up-tempo “Applejack.”
We were reminded that Parton, in addition to being a fabulous singer and songwriter, is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing mountain dulcimer, autoharp, guitar and banjo. I have my doubts that she was really playing that tiny, rhinestone-studded saxophone on “Yakety Sax” – aka “The Benny Hill Show” theme song. Still, it made for a great moment and reminded us that Parton is as much an accomplished entertainer as she is a pure singer.
There was a high-stepping and gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” before intermission. When she came back, she’d traded her all-white sparkly outfit for an all-black sparkly outfit, and launched into a blistering “Baby I’m Burning.”
She sat at a glittery piano to sing the Norah Jones arrangement of Parton’s “The Grass is Blue.” Here, again, her voice was in fine form as she perfectly hit the high notes at the end of the song.
She followed “Those Memories You,” which she recorded for the “Trio” project with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, with a stunning a capella version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” from her latest album “Pure and Simple.”
Then she stood front and center for “Little Sparrow,” from her 2001 album of the same name. It’s a song that she often gets requests for, she said. It’s easy to see why. It’s gorgeous, and to hear it performed live – and so very well – is not something one will forget soon.
As the night headed to a close, Parton brought us four big hits in succession, “Here You Come Again,” her first million seller, “Islands in the Stream,” which she recorded in the ’80s with Kenny Rogers, the Oscar-nominated “9-to-5” before ending with “I Will Always Love You.”
Whitney Houston’s version of Parton’s song might be better known these days, but make no mistake, that song is all Parton. And on this night on the West Plains, country music’s most glittery icon let everyone on hand know it.