The first wisecrack came after the first song, when Dolly Parton encouraged the crowd of about 10,000 people at the Sprint Center to spend its money on her generously because “it costs a lot to look this cheap.”
No matter what anyone spent on tickets or merchandise, they got their money’s worth Friday night. For more than two hours, Parton and her three-piece band delivered a spectacular show that was relentlessly entertaining, as funny as it was poignant and inspiring, and that showcased her many talents.
She opened with a cover of “Train, Train,” a song by the Southern rock band Blackfoot, then “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That,” a No. 1 country hit for her in 1989.
She followed that with a big one, “Jolene,” but not before telling the story of what inspired it: a long-legged, red-headed teller at the bank who had been flirting with her husband, Carl Dean. “He was spending more time at the bank than we had money,” Parton said, which prompted her to investigate.
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And so it went. A litany of songs, some of them new, such as “Pure and Simple,” the title track of her upcoming album, others solid-gold classics, such as “Coat of Many Colors,” which followed a touching story about Parton, her very large family (she is one of 12 children) and their poor, humble life in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Parton’s voice was remarkably strong and clean. Just as impressive was how she showcased her array of talents on at least 10 instruments, including the guitar, penny whistle, banjo, fiddle, piano, dulcimer, blues harmonica and autoharp. After a raucous cover of “Rocky Top,” Parton showed off her skills on the saxophone, ripping through a few bars of “Yakety Sax.”
She was backed by keyboard player Richard Dennison, bassist Tom Rutledge (who also played banjo), guitarist and bandleader Kent Wells and a drum machine, which, she explained, cost $47 at Radio Shack and spared her the expense of hiring a live drummer. “And it doesn’t talk back,” she said. (Her sound was also fortified by backing tracks throughout.)
The only lull in the show was a slight one, when Parton and her band gathered downstage to perform a medley of songs she associated with protests in the 1960s and 1970s, including “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ In the Wind,” which, oddly, they mashed up with a few lines from Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.”
The highlights were many: “My Tennessee Mountain” and “Smoky Mountain Memories,” tributes to her roots; the cover of “I’ll Fly Away,” which closed the first set; “Applejack,” a song about the reclusive mountain man who taught her to play banjo; “The Seeker,” one of several spiritual songs; and the stripped-down, mournful version of “Little Sparrow.”
Parton tossed out a fusillade of memorable one-liners, many of them self-deprecating: “Me having a chest cold is like a giraffe having a sore throat”; “I’m a self-made woman, and I have the (doctor) bills to prove it”; and the line of the night, after someone bellowed “I love you”: “I thought I told you to wait in the truck.”
She delivered more than just wisecracks. She told the story behind her Imagination Library, through which she has given away millions of books to children around the world: It was inspired by her father, who was illiterate. She reminded her audience more than once about our humaneness, our obligation to love and accept one another.
The second set included a barrage of her best-known songs, such as “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5,” which prompted the loudest sing-along of the night.
Parton closed with more inspirational music: “I Will Always Love You,” which she dedicated to everyone in the arena, then “Hello, God/He’s Alive,” a testimony to her faith.
That one reaffirmed what was the evening’s underlying theme, which was no joke: We are all only as good, as she put it, as “the content and the intent of our hearts.”
Train, Train; Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That; Jolene; Pure and Simple; Precious Memories; My Tennessee Mountain Home; Coat of Many Colors; Smoky Mountain Memories; Applejack; Rocky Top/Yakety Sax; Banks of the Ohio; Medley: American Pie, If I Had a Hammer, Blowin’ In the Wind/Dust in the Wind, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; The Seeker; I’ll Fly Away. Intermission. Baby, I’m Burning; Outside Your Door; The Grass Is Blue; Those Memories of You; Do I Ever Cross Your Mind; Little Sparrow; Here You Come Again; Two Doors Down; Islands in the Stream; 9 to 5. Encore: I Will Always Love You; Hello, God/He’s Alive