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Cowboys and rhinestones: Dolly Parton charms the Verizon Theatre

Travis Williams
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God was really working at the peak of his abilities when he made Dolly Parton. 

Or at least part of her, according to the legend herself. 

“I’ve always considered myself a self-made woman,” Parton proclaimed during her sold-out show at the Verizon Theatre Saturday night. “And I’ve got the doctor’s bills to prove it!” 

That was just one of the many witticisms the country icon whipped out during her nearly two and a half hour set, a dazzlingly low-key spectacle that’s a part of her latest Pure and Simple Tour. 

Ever since Parton boarded a Greyhound bus for Nashville in 1964, she’s worked her way to the top of the musical food chain through a mixture of extraordinary talent and fruitful work ethic. I’m very aware that I refer to a multitude of female entertainers as “queens” on a regular basis. But between Parton’s 46 Grammy nominations, 100 million records sold worldwide, and 25 Billboard No. 1 hits, I think it’s safe to say that Parton is the undisputed Queen of Country Music (If you disagree, come talk to me when your favorite artist has their own amusement park). 

If you ever had any doubt about that, you owe it to yourself to witness one of her live shows while you have the chance (the tour concludes with two shows Friday and Saturday at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla.). There may not be any fireworks, flashy visuals, or pyrotechnics involved, but Parton’s never needed anything more than a sparkly dress and a bedazzled microphone to enchant an audience. 

With this tour, she’s utilizing only three backing musicians: keyboardist Richard Dennison, bassist Tom Rutledge, and guitarist Kent Wells. The backdrop consists of nothing more than some flowy white curtains and even the video screens flanking the stage were turned off for the performance.

But when the pint-sized performer literally burst onto the stage to the thumping beat of “Train Train,” the crowd was already rising to their feet, eyes aglow at the sight of their beloved Dolly. 

Segueing into hits like “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” and “Jolene,” Parton’s stage presence was both effortless and effervescent. With a flick of the wrist or tap of her foot, she had you holding on to every single belt or coo like it was the only thing keeping you alive (which in my case, it really felt like it was). 

Parton turned 70 this year, and it’d be reasonable to expect her voice to sound different or have a different texture with age. But if you closed your eyes during Parton’s performance of “I Will Always Love You,” you’d think you were listening to her singing on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1974. 

The audience was obviously most attuned whenever she was belting out her countless hits, such as “Island In The Stream” or “9 To 5.” But her childlike tremble and soulful delivery enriched every single song of the evening with joy, humor, and heartache in equal doses. 

I wasn’t familiar with tracks like “Little Sparrow” or “If I Had Wings” coming into the evening, which is especially strange considering my longtime devotion to Parton and her career. But the way she floats around the stage and injected every song with its own dynamic and range made the entire set one big standout from beginning to end.

Parton may describe her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat,” but it’s impossible not to be moved by her light-hearted spirit and boundless energy. Particularly when she busted out one of several diamond-encrusted instruments throughout the evening, switching from the guitar to fiddle to dulcimer to piano to even tin whistle with ease. 

Somehow even more impressive than her vocals though was her knack for storytelling. You come to a Dolly Parton show to sing-along to her catalogue of hits, but you stay to hear her add new layers of depth to the music on display. 

Almost every song was bookended by a story explaining the song’s origins, a funny anecdote related to it, or why she chose to perform a particular song for this tour. Her history growing up in a “Tennessee mountain home” and the hardship she encountered are well-documented, best of all by Parton herself. 

“Momma used to say, ‘if we had some ham, we’d have ham and eggs, if we had eggs,’” she quipped. “Life is all about love, kindness, acceptance, and understanding. We had enough to eat, a bed to sleep in, roof overhead, even if it leaked. Good parents are the greatest gift God can give us.”

This humility greatly amplified the emotional impact of the music, especially given the recent Tennessee wildfires that have afflicted her beloved home. Before singing the criminally under-appreciated “Smoky Mountain Memories” atop a pedestal, you could feel the emotion tugging at her voice when she said “You can burn away our home, but you can’t take away our memories.” 

I can’t think of another time I’ve seen such an emotionally-charged performance by an artist so personally connected to the words she was singing: “These northern nights are dreary and my southern eyes are teary, as I wonder how the old folks are back home/But I’ll keep leanin’ on my Jesus, he’ll love and guide and lead us, the Smoky Mountain memories keep me strong.” 

I could go on all day about all of the wonderful things that occurred at Parton’s performance or why she means so much to me and so many other individuals. I was ten years old when I first watched Steel Magnolias and laid eyes on Parton, falling in love with her squeaky voice and down-home Southern charm. I bought one of my first records, a copy of Parton’s 1969 My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, when I was 15 years old and wore it out listening to the collection of spangly country gems. And I’m probably one of the three people who rushed out to see Joyful Noise, Parton’s 2012 film co-starring Queen Latifah, on opening weekend to get a glimpse of the icon still kicking it onscreen. 

Parton is a living legend who also feels like she could be a member of your family, which is exactly why I feel so devoted to her along with the 6,000 other fans who filled out the Verizon Theatre Saturday night. By injecting her performance with all of the heart and humour that made the world fall in love with her in the first place, Parton won the crowd over with good ol’ fashioned showmanship. 

This is the time of year when sentimentality and nostalgia can be a pretty welcome presence, especially given every curveball that 2016 has thrown at us. But thankfully Parton’s Pure & The Simple Tour and the memories it produce will be sure to keep her fans warm all winter long, this one included. 

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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