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In Dolly Parton’s immaculately manicured hands, country music shakes off the blues and puts a brave face on life’s hardships. “Momma and daddy had a real hard time, but they never complained,” she said by way of introduction to “Coat of Many Colours”, a song about her hardscrabble upbringing in rural Tennessee, which concluded with her singing that a person “is only poor if they choose to be”. It wouldn’t cut much ice with a sociologist, but listening to her sunny songs and folksy repartee you could almost believe her.
The tone of the evening was autobiographical. A jaunty country track called “My Tennessee Mountain Home” made an idyll of her childhood. A banjo-led barn dance number about her first boyfriend prompted her to speculate about why the rat dumped her: “There ain’t nothing unsexier than a gal with a banjo!” (One suspects the title of the song, “Marry Me”, also had something to do with it.)
There were touching moments – an anecdote about her father’s departure to Detroit in search of work was followed by a moody folk lament, “Smoky Mountain Memories” – but the mood was essentially upbeat, as underlined by a daffy routine involving an Elvis impersonator and a triumphant rendition of her working-woman’s anthem “9 to 5”. Money dominated the anecdotes in the later stages of the show: clearly her impoverished beginnings have left more scars than she likes to admit.
Is there a real Dolly Parton underneath the glitz and the kitsch? Resplendent in a huge blonde wig and glittery mini-dress, her skin taut from cosmetic surgery, the 61-year-old looked like some strange Nashville fantasy. Yet every time she opened her mouth to sing, she came alive. An a cappella rendition of “Little Sparrow” held the stadium rapt, and the finale, a gospel number called “He’s Alive”, showcased the soulful power and clarity of her voice. To employ a Dolly-ish truism, it’s not what is on the outside that matters, it’s what is on the inside.
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