Dolly Parton Glitters Up Red River

Rhinestone cowgirl’s three-hour stand of virtuosity

Dolly Parton’s take on “Pure and Simple” looks like other people’s craft explosion. Thus named, the Austin stop of the singer’s tour began with a moment of tranquility. Billowing curtains hung in five columns, lightbulbs strung among them twinkling as the sound of crickets transformed the Erwin Center into the Tennessee backyard of Parton’s childhood.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

You could hear a pin drop in the packed house. Then the spotlights hit the center column, illuminating what John Updike called “the last of the hourglass figures,” hands on hips, as “Hello, Dolly” cut through the crickets.

“Hello, Texas!” boomed Parton, stepping out from behind the veneer in a glittering, all-white body suit. The full house roared at full volume, and the stillness dissolved into the rhinestone-covered world of Dollywood as she launched into “Train, Train.” Pure and simple? Not by most standards, but it started a show that was purely, simply, and quintessentially Dolly Parton.

Over two 90-minute sets divided by a 20-minute intermission (read: a chance for her to put on yet another shimmering ensemble, this time a gold and white, flapper-style dress shredded into chunky columns), the 70-year-old Nashville queen continued a similar balancing act of Smoky Mountain-inspired ballads and her pop megahits. She busted out the iconic “Jolene,” an ode to a long-legged bank worker who seduced her then-new husband Carl Dean – with whom Parton just celebrated 50 years of marriage – by the third song, but there was still so much left in her arsenal.

The most incredible swing between her two worlds as a farmer’s daughter and an international superstar came in the second half of the show. Parton went from cutting the audience at the knees with a sparsely instrumented “Little Sparrow,” which allowed her still pristine soprano to blow the lid off of the UT drum, to a hyper-driven tour through four of her biggest smashes: “Two Doors Down,” “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream,” and “9 to 5.” Everyone was still reeling from that cavalcade when she then pared it back down for “I Will Always Love You.”

Even so, the concert proved as much about showing off a deep, deep catalog as it was sharing the experience of simply being around Dolly Parton. Banter strung the songs together, the bandleader cracking jokes like a seasoned comedienne and dropping nuggets of cliched Dollyisms.

“You know what I say, it costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” she quipped, addressing her sky-high wig and body conforming suit.

Explaining her multi-instrumentalism, which included her playing a guitar, banjo, saxophone, dulcimer, harpsichord, piano, and pennywhistle – all pieces decked in even more bling than their handler – she quipped she “never left a rhinestone unturned.” While that may be so, no amount of faux or real jewelry can obscure her virtuosity.

Meanwhile, Parton’s voice, instantly recognizable and incredibly preserved, certainly remains a testament to that, but her comfort in navigating the lightning-fast banjo licks in “Rocky Top” at one moment and playing a piano parlor songstress on “The Grass Is Blue” in the next highlighted something that, in all of her glitz, people seem to forget: Dolly Rebecca Parton is one of the last American musical prodigies of her era.

As the show wound down, she addressed an energized audience that spanned from young children to blue-haired seniors.

“Wouldn’t it be good if you could put all this love and energy into a vial and give it to people?” she asked.

Eau de Dolly would undoubtedly come in a precious white bottle covered in rhinestones.

Photo gallery.

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Dolly Parton, Jolene, Carl Dean

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