Dolly Parton Makes Triumphant Return to the Ryman: Live Review
The year was 1959. Thirteen-year old Dolly Parton had traveled to Nashville with her Uncle Bill Owens to see the Grand Ole Opry at its then-current home, the Ryman Auditorium. That night, she wound up making her debut performance on the stage -- thanks to Jimmy C. Newman giving up one of his performance slots on the WSM radio show. Performing George Jones’ hit “You Gotta Be My Baby,” the singer received three encores that night.
Almost five decades later, the Country Music Hall of Fame member returned to that historic stage -- with back-to-back sellout shows Saturday night (Aug. 1), as well as Friday. Of course, it wasn’t her first time back to the Ryman stage. “There’s something sacred about this old building,” Parton told Billboard. “I’ve been performing here since I was a girl, and became a member on January 4, 1969 in the Ryman. It feels like going home. It feels like your whole family is just surrounding you.”
Indeed, many of her fellow artists were in the crowd during her two-night stint, such as John Rich, Kelly Lang, TG Sheppard, and Wynonna. The singer said having her contemporaries there was a great feeling. “It’s always great to have your friends in the audience. It’s a little nerve-wracking, though. You’d rather perform for anybody but people in the business. You wonder ‘Are they going to pick me apart?’ But I’m honored they’re here. It makes me feel good.”
Saturday’s show -- a benefit for the Grand Ole Opry Trust Fund (Friday night served as a benefit for The Dustin Wells Foundation) -- definitely had the audience feeling good from start to finish. Parton kept it simple -- concentrating on giving fans 90 minutes of her best material -- music and otherwise. Kicking off with “Backwoods Barbie,” she struck a very conversational tone with the crowd, talking about the inspiration behind many of her songs. She gave a bouncy rendition of her 1989 chart-topper “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That” before offering a haunting performance of the classic “Jolene.”
In between the songs, the always-frank Parton struck with a few well-timed barbs about her appearance and her upbringing. In referencing her large family (six brothers and six sisters), she stated, “No, we weren’t Catholics ... just horny Baptists,” and in talking about her flamboyant appearances, she recalled a relative asking if she thought she would go to Heaven looking like she did. Her comeback was “I want to go to Heaven, but do I have to look like hell to get there?”
The entertainment icon struck a nice mixture of her classic recordings such as “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Two Doors Down,” as well as an emotional version of her 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors.” She also shined on a powerful version of the Gospel hymn “Precious Memories.” Proud to share her faith with the audience, perhaps the highlight of the night was a soulful version of her 1975 hit “The Seeker,” which she really seemed to pour her heart into.
But, she also was quick to throw in some of her latter-day works, such as “Blue Smoke” and the anguish-drenched “Little Sparrow,” during which you could have heard a pin drop in the capacity crowd.
Most of the songs were straight from her pen, but she did reach back to 1977 for the song that became her first million-selling single, “Here You Come Again.” Featuring one of the most identifiable melodies of any of her songs, it became a crowd sing-a-long, as did her early classic “Applejack.”
As is the case with any performer with such a long string of hits, Parton saved her aces for the final stretch, giving fans a solo take on “Islands In the Stream,” a raucous run through “9 to 5,” which kept the crowd going – and coming to an emotional apex with “I Will Always Love You,” a hit for the singer three times (1974, 1982, and in duet form with Vince Gill in 1995), as well as becoming a standard for Whitney Houston in 1992.
There weren’t any pyrotechnics, smoke or confetti falling from the rafters. The fashion-conscious Parton didn’t even exit the stage to change outfits. She didn’t need to. The legendary songstress kept it simple, giving fans what made her so revered in the first place -- the songs. And nobody does it better in that department, for sure!