Credit Dolly Parton for being one of the few humans alive who can bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans, grandmothers and daughters, good ol boys and gay boys. All were in attendance Monday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Parton performed her hits and the same timeworn comedy routines she's done for decades. The stories like the one about her admiring the town whore and saying she wanted to grow up to be what her momma deemed "trash" often lasted longer than the actual songs.
The diverse crowd, though, gobbled it up like it was cotton candy, laughing at every one of Parton's Poconos-worthy routines. The iconic 62-year-old Country Queen decked out in a sequined dress that kept her most famous attributes at chin-level throughout the evening poked fun at her boobs, wig and fruit fly status, even bringing up a strapping young man in nothing much more than tight-fitting overalls. Eat your heart out girls, Parton cracked, and some of you guys.
Partons humor was fine, in doses, but her long-winded tales grew old, especially if youre familiar with her famed rags-to-riches bio. More troubling was the music. Parton is one of the finest singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists this country has ever produced and I mean that with the utmost respect and sincerity. But it was hard to tell Monday on account of a huge, 11-person band and pounding drums that made even Parton-penned country classics like Jolene and Coat of Many Colors smack of disco trash and 1980s plasticity.
Perhaps my expectations were too high.
I got into Parton during her acclaimed, back-to-the-basics bluegrass phase that produced the Grammy-winning 1999 Appalachian beauty The Grass Is Blue and its touching mountain music follow-up Little Sparrow. Even Partons new record Backwoods Barbie leans more toward 1968s In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) than 1980s 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, so I had rather high expectations for a healthy dose of genuine twang.
But there was little real country on display last evening. Parton did play a dulcimer and Autoharp but both instruments were covered in rhinestones and lost in the mix once the army of backing musicians chimed in.
The most disturbing moment, though, was when Parton did a Sabbath morning medley that included When the Saints Go Marchin In. She prefaced the number by talking about the gospel revivals her daddy used to lead. But when it came for her to sing about getting right with Jesus I felt like I was watching Steve Martin in Leap of Faith.
Oh, well, thats Dolly, living the American Dream. The Country Queen in all her kitschy glory.