About the time Dolly Parton picked up a rhinestone-studded soprano saxophone 10 songs into her marathon show at the Erwin Center on Tuesday night, it was hard to imagine that she could possibly be real.
As if to underscore the point, she challenged herself after tooting off a lively sax solo on the Tennessee standard “Rocky Top”: “You want to see me do it backwards?” And so Dolly whooped the crowd up, got ready to play, and … turned around, her back facing the audience as she smoked the solo again. Voila!
The audience’s laughter at the “feat” was fitting, given that Parton’s two-and-a-half-hour performance featured almost as much humor as it did music. She sprinkled long stories about her Smoky Mountains hometown, her family and friends, and her lifetime of experiences as an iconic entertainer throughout the show.
Along the way, she amazed the crowd with her wide-ranging musical talent, a virtuosity that extends well beyond her legendary reputation as a high-lonesome but powerful singer and a deeply affecting songwriter. The sax bit may have been mostly a gag, but by that time, she’d already reeled off licks on acoustic guitar, dulcimer, autoharp, penny whistle, banjo and fiddle, with turns on harmonica, electric guitar and piano still to come.
In an interview before this latest leg of the tour supporting her new “Pure & Simple” album, Parton spoke of how much time it takes to prepare a set list, given how many hits she’s had over a six-decade career and the narrative she likes to weave between them. All that effort paid off in a show that felt like part personal biography and part standup routine, even as the music dominated every aspect of the evening.
A-LIST PHOTO GALLERY: Dolly Parton at the Erwin Center
She got to signature early-career songs such as “Jolene,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Coat of Many Colors” in the first hour, sharing indelible memories of her childhood in folksy rambles that often went on longer than the songs. Many of her biggest country-pop crossover hits were saved for a grand-slam sing-along finale: Parton paraded back and forth across the stage as her bandmates cranked out “Two Doors Down,” “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5” behind her like a heavyweight boxer unleashing a flurry of lefts and rights.
That band packed quite a punch for just three musicians. In keeping with the “Pure & Simple” theme of her album and tour, Parton brought along only pianist Richard Dennison, bassist Tom Rutledge and multi-instrumentalist Kent Wells, with a drum machine boosting the rhythm on more upbeat numbers. All three proved versatile and congenial, often supporting Parton with rich vocal harmonies in addition to their instrumental backing.
Two of the show’s most illuminating passages came just before a 25-minute intermission and in the middle of the second set. The latter drew notably from Parton’s late-career bluegrass resurgence, perhaps the most creative period of her life since she rose to stardom in the 1960s and ’70s. Her musicality shone magnificently on title tracks from 1999’s “The Grass Is Blue,” which she played and sang solo on a white grand piano (rhinestone-studded, naturally), and 2001’s “Little Sparrow,” begun in stunning a cappella before atmospheric twinges of organ and bowed bass pulled it into another dimension.
If that section — which also included a couple of selections from Parton’s “Trio” albums with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — was arguably the show’s musical apex, a medley of mostly 1960s classics near the end of the first set had a notable cultural impact. Parton makes concerted efforts not to choose political sides; when reports surfaced this summer that she supported Hillary Clinton, she issued a statement saying she hadn’t endorsed either candidate. But she referenced the election when introducing the medley, intriguingly mentioning she’d written some songs about “the craziness that’s gone on in the past few months.”
Whether those songs might surface at some point — or if she might do an album of Bob Dylan songs, as she mused after the medley — remains to be seen. But the fact that she included Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” in the medley, while steering clear of “Okie From Muskogee” or Charlie Daniels tunes, may have tipped her hand as to where she stands.
In the end, though, Parton seeks first and foremost to be a unifier. “Let’s just drop this doomsday attitude,” she said after finishing with a half-whispered, sweetly intimate rendition of her timeless ballad “I Will Always Love You” that made the Erwin Center feel like her front porch. Returning amid heavenly piano chords for a quick final bow and a snippet of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” she concluded, as Dolly always will, on the bright side: “So cheer up, my brothers and sisters. Live in the sunshine.”
1. Train Train
2. Why’d You Come in Here
4. Pure and Simple
5. Precious Memories
6. My Tennessee Mountain Home
7. Coat of Many Colors
8. Smoky Mountain Memories
9. Apple Jack
10. Rocky Top
11. Banks of the Ohio
12. Medley: American Pie/If I Had a Hammer/Blowin’ in the Wind/Dust in the Wind/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
13. The Seeker
14. I’ll Fly Away
15. Baby I’m Burning/Girl on Fire
16. Outside Your Door
17. The Grass Is Blue
18. Those Memories of You
19. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
20. Little Sparrow
21. Two Doors Down
22. Here You Come Again
23. Islands in the Stream
24. 9 to 5
25. I Will Always Love You
26. Farther Along (excerpt)