Ever since I was a little girl, Dolly Parton has been on the top of my list for Dream Next Door Neighbour. Even now, I could imagine being out in my garden, just chilling, maybe feeling a bit contemplative. Then I’d see Dolly over the fence. She’d come over and say hey, decked head to toe in pink and made-up with big hair and crazy nails. We’d shoot the breeze for a while. She’d eventually get my troubles out of me and know exactly what to say. She’d deliver it with such wisdom, incongruous to her image, that I’d know it was the right thing to do. I liked the idea of having a life size Barbie Doll living next door. As I’ve gotten older and the dream has stuck with me, I know that it’s more to do with Dolly Parton’s never-ending ability to surprise people that appeals to me – her show in The O2 in Dublin being a prime example.
Walking on to the stage singing a rendition of ‘Walking on Sunshine’, twinkling like a shining rhinestone, what follows is a very well-rehearsed and professionally delivered set over the course of three hours, taking us on a staged journey of Dollyland. ‘Jolene’ is dispatched soon into proceedings, followed by a bluegrass set which includes covers of favourites such as ‘Help!’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’. It sees Dolly carrying a banjo and blaming the size of her boobs on the large weight of the instrument; she has been playing banjo for about 50 years. There are endless self deprecating jokes throughout the night – about her hair breaking, about how she cries all the way to the bank when Whitney Houston sings her song and about how she needs our money because everybody knows how expensive it is to look so cheap.
The show swiftly moves to Dolly’s childhood, something that has always addressed in her music. About growing up at the foot of Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. About her family of six boys and five girls. About how she was the fourth oldest. About how her mother was a real special person, with a great personality and a sense of humour that people adored. About how people thought her family were Catholic, but in fact they were just very fertile hillbillies. The power of Dolly is that this never once seems like a gimmick. When she sings ‘Coat of Many Colours’ – about her Mama making her a coat out of rags and sending her off to school, reassuring her it’s gorgeous (just like Joseph’s from the Bible) forcing her to stick up for her threads – your eyes are not rolling… they’re welling up a bit. And, sure, you might feel a bit dumb for doing that but that’s Dolly Parton’s incredible gift for songwriting. She is a great communicator of the most simple and basic human emotions. There is no pretension, there are no barriers or bullshit between you and her. So she plays all of the hits, as well as a few numbers from her latest and 41st (that’s right, forty-first) studio album Better Days. This leads nicely into a totally non-gross plug for her new movie about gospel groups, due for release in January and co-starring Queen Latifah. And that’s when she started rapping…
Yes, Dolly Parton rapped. Constantly taking the piss out of herself, she delivers the now-immortal-to-me line of “mix country music and rap…all you get is crap…” I wish she’d sit Kid Rock down and tell him that. He’d listen to Dolly. There’s a bit of God talk but hey, this is country music. She also warns us when she was going to preach but she only does it twice and goes off for a 20 minute break halfway through, playing us out with a fake saxophone solo during ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and coming back in a new outfit, this time a rhinestone bedazzled shorts-pant suit thing. The last hour of the show consists of all the big tunes, mostly her own. She does an amazing dance during Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’, commenting that if Tina hadn’t retired, they’d certainly have the same hip-replacement stories. The crowd are up for ‘Here You Come Again’ and stay there for ‘9 to 5’, without even having to be asked. It all finishes with a huge, lip-trembling ‘I Will Always Love You’.
If you’re not a fan, surely her image and her corniness should put you off? Maybe it will. And that’s OK. She tells a story I’m sure she’s told eight gazillion times, about a woman that she saw a lot in her town growing up in Sevierville, Tennesee. This lady walked around with her hair stacked up on her head, with red talon nails, big stilettos and tiny skirts. Dolly, as a child, would hear people giving out about her, saying she was, well, a bit of a tramp. Dolly just thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world and that’s who she’s been styling herself on ever since. What I love about Dolly Parton is that she’s a modern day paradox. Here’s a woman who looks like a Barbie Doll but has talent, brains and spirituality so deep that can make a grown indie woman cry. And that’s why I’ll always love Dolly Parton.