This is a child. His name is Fritz. Why is his name Fritz? Oh, because he’s the best is why. I had the pleasure of meeting this little prince just before his parents surprised him with the first concert of his life: Dolly Parton. As if it wasn’t enough that he’s growing up with the name Fritz, he will forever be able to say that his first concert was Dolly Parton. He’s guaranteed to be such an awesome adult, I didn’t even care that he pooped his pants during dinner.
During the show’s intermission at the Reno Events Center (an unusual move for Dolly), I saw Fritz again. He was tired, no doubt (that poo took a lot out of him, plus he is a toddler) but when I asked his parents how he was enjoying the show, they said “We aren’t sure. He hasn’t been speaking. He’s mesmerized.”
Mesmerizing. Yes. That’s a word to describe Dolly. I’ve been running out of words to describe her for years, and unfortunately people keep asking me. Knowing that writing a review of a Dolly Parton show might leave me at a loss, I asked some other folks. As the venue was filled with the pre-show sounds of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” I asked a few people to tell me what they loved about Dolly in 10 words or less, starting with Lydia Popovich, my friend and fellow comedian who scored our incredible 4th row tickets.
Lydia: It’s so hard. She’s just… an angel.
That is all that she said. And then we both started crying like a couple of psychos. I moved onto some other fans taking their seats, who might not reduce me to tears as easily.
“Her singing. That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?”
– A Cowboy from Reno
“You never hear anything bad about her. She’s a genuine person.”
– Marianne, Ireland
“She started humble and she stayed humble.”
– Sherri, Reno
“She just makes me happy.”
– Bryan, San Francisco
(After a long pause)
“Ten word or less?
I’m speechless now. And I’m never speechless.”
– Mike from Indiana
Looking around this Reno venue, I knew it had been worth the flight and hotel to see her there. No one was there ironically and no one was there because it might be cool. These were real folks. Yes, the expected contingency of fancy gays had traveled in from bigger cities like we had, and they were seated amongst a sea of cowboys, women with scrunchies, American flag vests, and occasionally some salty looks. One gay couple across the aisle from me who both looked like Antonio Banderas (how do you BOTH look like Antonio Banderas?) caught a few glares during their more affectionate moments. But it didn’t matter. No room for that kind of judgement in Dolly’s church. Take it outside, Harold.
The curtain rose and Dolly’s band took the stage, in front of a giant screen that looked strangely like the Wu-Tang symbol? Who knows….Dolly’s last tour involved some rapping so maybe she’s next in the clan. She’s full of surprises! The screen was soon covered in photos of Dolly throughout the years and many of her album covers. Dolly, why are you selling me on liking you? I know you wrote so many of my favorite songs. That’s what I’m doing here. But this constant process of reminding fans of their own legendary status seems like a core tactic for Dolly’s brand of super-entertainers. It’s like she was saying, hey, before I take the stage, I just wanna remind you how awesome I am.
It worked. I would have cried when she came on stage either way because I am a mess, but the flashes of these iconic images and albums aswirl in my head ,shooting across a giant Wu-Tang logo, left me just as vulnerable as I was meant to be, like watching an opening choir before a preacher. I was already worshiping before the sermon began.
Dolly walked out in a white dress with black rhinestone accents and a rhinestone vest. Dolly’s never been shy about bedazzling herself but she’s gone next level in the last few years. Fun fact! There’s a reason there aren’t many shitty iPhone photos of Dolly at shows these days. She literally dresses herself to be difficult to photograph. Most cell phone photos get you nothing more than a ball of light floating in the middle of a stage, only one small example of her continuously evolving and image-curating genius.
She and the band quickly ran through a medley of “Blue Smoke,” the title track from her new album, into Alicia Keys’ “This Girl is on Fire,” Dolly moving across the stage in front of a backdrop of flames. She’s never lacking in energy but already seemed the most vibrant that I’ve seen her in a long time. Maybe the key is coming to the third show on a very long tour and not the 30th.
Dolly’s shows are always a finely orchestrated mix of hits, covers, new songs, loving tributes to her Tennessee roots, and straight up church. She knows exactly what we want. And it’s amazing to see cowboy Harold go as easily along into Dolly’s inclusion of same sex couples in her relationship advice as the Antonio Banderas gays follow her into a traditional gospel sing-along. The amount of unfettered trust her audience has in her is really remarkable. If she ran for any office, she’d win by a landslide.
After “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin Like That” and “Jolene,” almost every song punctuated by one of Dolly’s trademark jokes (It costs a lot of money to look this cheap) or stories from her life, Dolly moved to the front of the stage with her two female backup singers and took a stool. She started talking about Bob Dylan, describing him as a “pretty strange buckaroo” and called him one of the world’s greatest songwriters. They then covered “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” with bluegrass three-part harmonies, and this is when I start to ugly cry. Will I ever stop crying again, I thought? Or is this my new permanent state of being?
Well it wasn’t going to happen as long as she was starting the Tennessee portion of the evening. Peppered with stories about her mama and daddy (including a real tear jerker about daddy packing an oil drum full of soapy water and a broom into his truck every night to go down to the town square and scrub the pigeon poop off of the Dolly statue that had been raised in her honor), we all took a trip to the Smokies with “Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Smoky Mountain Memories,” “Rocky Top,” and a Sunday morning gospel sing-along with Dolly at an organ and giant stained glass windows on the Wu-Tang screen.
You know, I never minded church most of the time, in the day to day sense. I liked the friends I made, the singing, the food, the community, a feeling that I was a part of something bigger than myself. It was later, when the apocalypse anxiety dreams kept me up at night, robbing me of sleep for most of my teens, vivid images of my entire family burning in hell re-opening my eyes nightly just as they fell closed, that I lost some appreciation for it. Enough of our childhood was already hell on earth…why the unnecessary double punishment? Maybe this is why I’ve clung so tightly to Dolly. Dolly is the best parts of church. She exudes acceptance and warmth. She’s the kind of church I could go to every day and still go to sleep at night feeling hopeful and at peace. As an arena of people, myself included, sang “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away,” at one point I saw one of the Antonios raise both hands to the sky in a worship move that took me back to my revival days. Was this the best possible version of a religion? A few rows behind me, a Muslim woman in a hijab held hands with her husband.
It was a real-life version of one of Dolly’s recent videos. As schmaltzy as it may be, “Together You and I” from her Better Day album (the pre-intermission closer) will only take about 7 seconds to melt your cold dead heart. “Paint a pretty rainbow brushed with love across the sky?” I know. Trust me, I am not so much of an apologist that I will tell you every song is genius. But just watch the video and see if you can resist listening to the whole thing before you have get back to your complicated broody music. It’s just so fucking heart-warming! And what is wrong with a little heart-warming togetherness on this shit pile of a planet.
“Two Doors Down” opened the second half, into “Love Du Jour” from her latest album, and then she transitioned to a cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin Prayer” from her ‘99 album The Grass is Blue, a pretty rare treat to see live. It’s one of those songs that seems like it should never NOT have been a bluegrass song, and in my mind a pretty typical example of a Dolly Parton re-imagining of a song that’s so obvious there’s almost no need for the original version. It’s part of her magic. She helps us see the real potential in things.
Well this kicked off the sad portion of the evening. No luck for me and my twenty minutes of dry eyes. It wasn’t without warning. Dolly adorably asked permission to sing some sad songs, as if she were really asking permission or needed to. At this point, we’d go just about anywhere with her. With Bill Monroe’s “Banks of the Ohio,” things went from sad/ eerily murderous to “just plum pitiful” (Dolly’s words, not mine) as she went into her signature acapella version of “Little Sparrow,” her background singers joining for the second chorus as the song swelled into perfect harmonies, Dolly ever the angelic soloist.
If anything is lost on me in her last couple of tours, it’s her cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine.” Aside from thinking it’s just kind of funny and weird, I could probably do without it. I suppose the lyrics are in line with some of themes of her overall oeuvre, heaven and love and sunshine and all that stuff. And I guess the song is improved… but it’s a real turd-polishing situation for me.
Somewhere in the middle of her hits medley (“Bargain Store,” “Love is like a Butterfly,” “Old Flames,” “Here You Come Again”…she hit the best portions of each song, never leaving us wanting, then sang full versions of “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5”), I started to feel pretty sentimental. I know! I didn’t think it could get worse, either.
There are so many things that inspire me about Dolly – her drive, her beauty, her compassion, her honesty – but last night one theme resonated more than the others: Bravery in love. Lately I think about dabbling in love, wondering if I could do it again. I find it terrifying and yet at the same time, am so hopeful for what it could be. I thought about the empowered and unapologetic brand of love that’s in Dolly’s songs, and how much she treats love like she treats her career. She knows her worth, ever flawed as she may be, and she demands that it be recognized.
My life is like unto a bargain store
And I may have just what you’re lookin’ for
If you don’t mind the fact that all the merchandise is used
But with a little mending it could be as good as new
In songs like “Here You Come Again (and here I go….)”, “It’s All Wrong but It’s All Right,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” Dolly repeatedly laid herself on the line without compromising, staring love in the face, potential heartbreak and all, many times turning around to walk away.
What is perhaps her best-known love song and the closer of the evening, “I Will Always Love You,” isn’t a woe-is-me emo ballad about someone leaving her behind. Dolly’s not often found waiting by the phone in her love songs, is rarely apologizing for how she feels, and even at her most vulnerable somehow communicates her own power. She’s never a victim of love. She’s always choosing something. So many love songs are about being chosen or being left. The heroine of Dolly’s songs is always willing to sacrifice love to have the life she deserves. As Miss Mona, she famously sang “I Will Always Love You” to Burt Reynolds to say hey, sexy cop I’m in love with, if you can’t be with me, I’m gonna be loyal to my whores. Let me know when you are man enough to risk loving me back. And in the real-life inspiration for the song, she sang it to profess her love to Porter Wagoner as she left him to pursue her own career, which after years of collaboration he was spitefully trying to prevent. Sometimes you choose love, and sometimes you choose you. Or, you know, your whores.
There’s no weakness in Dolly’s brand of love. It’s brave, and bold, and as unflinching as love should be. It takes a lot of courage to fall in love with someone, and doubly so to demand the kind of love you deserve in return.
We are not all Dolly Parton. Actually, no one is Dolly Parton but Dolly Parton and I don’t know that I could emotionally handle two of them anyhow. But I truly believe that a handful of us are people of magic – exceptional humans, unique and magnetic beings of empathy and power and an endless capacity to love – who fail to realize what we have and so often give ourselves away to the wrong people. Accepting and honoring love from a person of magic is risky, it’s an adventure. It could end in disaster but is guaranteed to leave you better in the end. And being motivated by fear of the unknown or crippled by an obligation to wait around to be chosen will never lead us to happiness or love. We have to choose it. We make love happen. I knew this, somewhere inside myself. But I lost it. And Dolly reminded me yesterday. Thank you, Dolly for reminding me that I am a gift and not a burden. Not only do I deserve love but I have the power to create it.
Amy Miller is an Oakland bred, Portland based stand-up comedian who moonlights during the day in music marketing. The Willamette Week recently named her 2013’s Funniest Person in Portland. She has a podcast called Sorry About Your Dad. It’s about dad stuff.