As cavernous and soulless as the o2 is, once Dolly Parton takes the stage and warmly welcomes us into her world, it’s all of a sudden snug.
We may as well be sat cross-legged in the dust by the porch of the Parton’s wooden shack, where young Dolly would sing her little heart out – with a tobacco stick and a beans can for a microphone – to anyone who would listen (mostly her younger siblings who were too young to crawl away, she jokes). For an evening with Dolly Parton is to be embraced into her life (I was initially going to write ‘bosom’, but we’d be lost in there forever) and taken on a journey from rags to riches, with heartfelt yet hilariously self-deprecating tales introducing each song.
She dazzles on stage, literally: festooned with rhinestones, she glistens like a diamond under the lights. But more than that, she’s so damn cute, so sweet and, well, so loving, that you find yourself beaming throughout.
What’s most impressive about Dolly Parton, however, is the body of work she is solely responsible for. A natural songwriter and an astute businesswoman, she has built an empire based on the “simple country songs” she’s written (this is the artist who refused Elvis Presley 50% publishing rights on ‘I Will Always Love You’ just so he could record and release it, a decision that would ultimately pay off with Whitney Houston’s record-breaking 1992 version).
She’s dedicated to her art, too – throughout this one show alone she plays the guitar, autoharp, harmonica, penny whistle, banjo, fiddle, and a “saxy” mini-saxophone. This is no dumb blonde: “I know I ain’t dumb,” the sassy singer upholds, “and I know I ain’t blonde!”
The old hits are scattered throughout the night, with new tracks (mostly from forthcoming album ‘Blue Smoke’) still getting the pink-Stetson-hatted fans moving. ‘Jolene’ – a plea to a beautiful woman not to steal her husband – arrives nice and early, and her feisty response after, proudly flaunting that she kept her man (“We’ve been married 48 years now… Though we’ve only been together for about three-and-a-half,” she giggles) does not go unappreciated by the pheromone-heavy crowd.
In the more tender moments, such as ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ (her favourite song, apparently) or ‘Little Sparrow’, the cavern descends to a hush, and the full impact of her voice, itself as light, vibrant and charming as a bird, is apparent. At 68, she is full of life, full of music, and doesn’t stop moving, talking or singing for the duration of her set. Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, here to play on Dolly’s gospel-tinged version of their ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, pays tribute by saying: “I came to London to see the queen,” before she cheekily quips: “Elton John, or me?”
But the big ones (oh, she does love boob jokes) are saved until the end. ‘Islands In The Stream’ and ‘9 To 5’ round off a wholly glittering affair, before the majestic encore, ‘I Will Always Love You’, is delivered with style – “I can’t sing it like Whitney,” Dolly confesses, “but I can sing it like me, and I mean it from the bottom of my country heart.”
Don’t call her a guilty pleasure: Dolly Parton is a comet, a ball of flashing energy, and she knows how to throw a party. Long may that country heart beat.
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Words: Simon Harper