The Gospel According to Dolly Parton

On the defiantly trashy and tremendously appealing queen of country-pop cheesecake

You want to know, so I'll tell you: Yes, Dolly Parton told jokes about her breasts. Several. The one explaining why Thursday night's triumphant Radio City Music Hall hootenanny had been delayed a few months—she'd thrown her back out, you see, pulling her husband out of the giant craters she'd formed in their foam mattress by sleeping face-down—was slightly too wordy. The one addressing her political ambitions was more pleasingly succinct. "People ask me, 'Dolly, why don't you run for president?' " it begins. "And I say, 'Don't you think we've had enough boobs in the White House?' "

Cue cheers, guffaws, adoration. If the phone's ringing at 3 a.m., I would like Dolly Parton to answer it. What she'd say is less important than how she'd say it, the bewildering power of her voice alone, a relentlessly chipper chirp that seems a half-step or so higher than it really ought to be. A voice far more voluptuous and entrancing than her cleavage; for someone who looks like the exact opposite of Olive Oyl, she sure sounds an awful lot like Olive Oyl. Flaunting contradiction is a hobby of hers: She's a gorgeous vision tonight, wrapped in a sparkly, opulent white dress, singing "Coat of Many Colors," a timeless ode to love triumphing over abject poverty via handmade clothes, while strumming a sparkly, opulent white autoharp. "I leave no rhinestone unturned," Dolly notes, one of several shopworn one-liners she's used to acknowledge both her fortune and the gleefully garish ends she puts that fortune to. "You know I need the money," she jokes, surveying the well-heeled, rapturous crowd before her. "It costs a lot to make somebody look this cheap."

Dolly has an actually really excellent new album, Backwoods Barbie, that struggles—a little defiantly, a little defensively—to reconcile Dolly's body with Dolly's soul. The title track sternly warns us not to write her off as a vapid, ditzy blonde, not to judge the book by its cover, as it were: "I'm a real good book." Thursday's show avoids the record's loopier notions: stunt covers of "Tracks of My Tears" and Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy," a kiss-off song called "Shinola" that manages not to use the word shit (instead, you get jibes like "Your attitude stinks and I hate it"), etc. She has bigger fish to fry. Onstage, she's a whirlwind of giddy energy, a torrent of Oh boy!'s and All right!'s, regaling us with Hee Haw–worthy one-liners ("You know you're getting old when you go from taking acid to taking antacid"), reminiscing about her "horny Baptist" Tennessee family, pimping her child-literacy program, briefly swiping back at the tabloids who'd apparently reported that her tour is in "shambles," announcing that she'd prefer to die onstage (not right now, but whenever her time comes), and slinging indelible slices of country-pop cheesecake: "Two Doors Down," "Thank God I'm a Country Girl," "Why'd You Come Here Lookin' Like That," "Islands in the Stream" (no Kenny, alas), the mighty "Jolene." Her bustling backing band (often strumming four guitars simultaneously, very Glen Campbell meets Glenn Branca) fights like hell to keep up: During one 45-second stretch, Dolly plays harmonica, fiddle, and banjo. There's also a bizarre interlude wherein she reads allegedly fan-generated questions off a note card:

No plastic surgery in at least five months
David Atlas
No plastic surgery in at least five months

Q: "Is it true you've had plastic surgery?"
A: "Not this year."

Even the show's less riveting moments—her backing band's dopey five-minute medley of pop-music history (oh, great: "Wipeout"), the beautifully sung but draggy new ballad "Only Dreamin' "—blow harmlessly by in a jetstream of goodwill, harmless filler while we wait for her to belt out "I Will Always Love You" (with a shout-out to Whitney Houston "for making me a bunch of money") and to barnstorm through "9 to 5." Both are proof of Dolly's consummate power as both entertainer and songwriter, skills equally evident on Backwoods Barbie, particularly the adultery lament "Cologne," which in its first line ("You ask me not to wear cologne/She'll know you've been with me alone") vaporizes 98 percent of all other adultery laments. Near show's end, she apologizes in the event she's offended anyone, which is unlikely; having electrified the crowd into shouting the chorus to "9 to 5" en masse, she strides triumphantly offstage, changes up her outfit, and strides right back for the encore to unleash Barbie's "Jesus and Gravity," which is not, in fact, another joke about her breasts, but instead describes the only two things she really needs. (The first is more important.)

Generally, this is a terrible idea: following your biggest hit with your little-heard newest. The Radio City masses, dancing in the aisles just a few seconds ago, politely sit down and prepare to indulge her. But it's tremendously endearing how out of hand "Jesus and Gravity" gets, a triumphant gospel-pop thunderclap that pours on the backing-choir effusions and the soaring high notes and the biblically grandiose choruses until even a roomful of godless city slickers are feeling downright Pentecostal—one more delicious paradox for the road. One man's trash is another man's treasure, but Dolly wins over absolutely everyone by being both. By the end of the song, everyone's standing again.

 
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