Review: Dolly Parton dazzles Tampa's Amalie Arena with vast songbook, inspirational stories
Dolly Parton had a cold, and a running joke that went along with it.
Each time Parton reached for a tissue during her concert Saturday at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, she’d apologize profusely, then wave the tissue aloft, asking if anyone wanted it for eBay.
“Anybody? Nobody? No?” she’d ask, her rhinestone smile sparkling across the arena.
Who could blame anyone for saying yes? Even a molecule of Dolly magic goes a mile in this world, as Tampa learned during an epic, career-spanning evening of music and inspirational storytelling.
A lower-bowl sellout crowd of almost 9,000 hung on Parton’s every note and word – and in two sets over nearly three hours, she offered plenty of them. For as much as she sang – more than 30 songs, including some medleys – the pop-country icon spoke even more, giving the night the feel of an exceedingly polished one-woman show.
On her first major arena tour in a quarter century, and first stop in the city of Tampa since the early ‘90s, Parton, 70, hung her whole life story, soundtrack and all, on an appreciative all-ages crowd (including, of all people, film director Kevin Smith, who sat near the stage).
It was a night bookended by her greatest hits – Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That and Jolene near the outset; Here You Come Again, Islands In the Stream, 9 to 5 and I Will Always Love You near the end – which left plenty of room in the middle for Parton to beguile the masses with folk and gospel storytelling and her signature Smoky Mountain charm.
“Boy, you sure look like you’re in a rare mood tonight!” Parton said, welcoming the Thanksgiving weekend audience into her home for the evening.
Wearing sparkling silver with white tassels and a plume of a wavy blond wig, Parton strutted across the stage before a three-piece incarnation of her longtime backing band (a drum machine subbed in for a live drummer), chirping into her headset mic and occasionally strumming a guitar. When the song called for it, she picked up an autoharp (Coat of Many Colors), banjo (Applejack), penny whistle (Smokey Mountain Memories), and saxophone (Yakity Sax), and once sat at the piano for a sparse take on The Grass Is Blue. The band met her musicality note for note, measure for measure, completing and enhancing Those Memories Of You and Do I Ever Cross Your Mind, from Parton’s classic Americana Trio sessions with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
Time (and, perhaps, her cold) gave Parton’s distinct warble a slightly husky tenor, one that softened to a whisper during the most dramatic parts of her ballads (a devastating Little Sparrow, a charming My Tennessee Mountain Home) and whizzed back to life on lickety-split numbers like Rocky Top (a bold choice in Gator Country, but it got the crowd moving) and the hip-shaking, heel-kicking Two Doors Down. And as long as Parton keeps singing I Will Always Love You, the chills will never go away.
But as good as the music was, it took a backseat to Parton’s banter – and even calling it "banter" feels like an injustice. Her life is a book fans know chapter and verse, from her mama’s Stone Soup to her 50-year marriage to Carl Dean, yet her stories still captivate. She practically preached up there, working her humble upbringing into sermons on acceptance (“You should never be ashamed of yourself, whoever you are”), spirituality (“Thank you, God, for allowing me to see those little-girl dreams come true”) and positivity (“We’re so consumed with dying that the joy of living is lost”).
Hokey? A little – okay, a lot – but it works when it’s coming from Dolly. Same with the cavalcade of Dixie cup one-liners she rattled off all night, many as honed by the years as her music.
On her childhood in poverty: “We had running water – you run and get it.”
On her ageless appearance: “I’m a self-made woman, and I’ve got the doctor bills to prove it.”
On her wardrobe: “I buy my clothes about two sizes two small, and I have them taken in.”
On her sniffles: “I’ve kind of got a head cold. That’s better than me getting a chest cold. That’d be like a giraffe getting a sore throat.”
When it came to the issues of our time, Parton spoke only generally. She winked to her gay fan base after brining out a stagehand in Magic Mike cowboy attire (“Ain’t he sexy, ladies? Oh, he’s pretty, isn’t he, boys?”), and joked that she should have run for president (“I had the hair for it – it’s yoooge”).
More than once, though, she lamented the nastiness of the recent election and how glad she was it was over. “Songwriters have a heyday” in times as turbulent as these, she said, adding, intriguingly, that “I’ve been writing songs.” She then played a medley of Don McLean’s American Pie, Pete Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind and the Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
Make of those choices what you will; Parton just called them “fun songs to sing.” (She also congratulated Dylan on being “nominated for a Pulitzer Prize” – eh, close enough – and said she can’t understand why he’s not picking it up in person: “Boy, I would. I’d swim across the ocean to get to that.”) But they’re also songs about war and peace and loss of innocence, protest and freedom and cultural upheaval. They're songs of nostalgia, but also of the times in which they were written.
“We rant and we rave about the good old days and how different it was back then,” she said. “But you know, the greatest days of all are the days that we’re living in.”
And that is true, especially in the presence of an icon like Parton. Would that you could jug and cork even a little of her homespun warmth and dazzling charisma, or even just take it home in a tissue. Forget eBay. That would be absolutely priceless.
-- Jay Cridlin