By Andy Argyrakis
She may have come from humble beginnings as the fourth of 12 children in Locust Ridge, TN, with the Smoky Mountains as her playground, but from the very moment Dolly Parton stepped out on a stage as a mere child, she’s been on a first-name basis with the world. Not only has the singer-songwriter sold an astounding 100 million records, scored 25 chart-topping singles, collected seven Grammys, and become one of just five female artists to ever be crowned the Country Music Association’s “Entertainer of the Year,” Dolly boasts the ridiculously rare distinction of scoring at least one nomination for each of the Grammy, Emmy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. Add in her very own theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, TN, plus the Dollywood Foundation (which promotes children’s literacy through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library initiative across North America), and this artist/entrepreneur/humanitarian’s strength may as well be superhuman.
Across her six decades in show business and beyond, Parton’s thankfully never been shy about stopping by the Chicago area for a concert or the Broadway musical 9 to 5, though this year is particularly monumental for her, as it marks Parton’s first major North American tour in more than 25 years. And given her love affair with the area, that also means a long-awaited return to Ravinia on Sunday, August 7, which maintains the momentum from the recent television biopic Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (which attracted 13 million viewers), while simultaneously serving as a preview to the double CD collection Pure & Simple with Dolly’s Biggest Hits (also coming out in August).
“Well I’m excited about it,” proclaimed Parton in her sugary sweet accent during a media teleconference call from her Nashville office. “We’ve done a few shows here and there, now and then over the last several years, but [this is] the first time for a long one. Everything seems to be going really good right now. There’s a little buzz going on with Coat of Many Colors, the success of our Blue Smoke CD [from 2014], and our tour through Europe. It got a lot of attention, so a lot of fans were [asking], ‘Why don’t you do it here?’ So I said, ‘Okay, if you want me to, I will.’ It just seemed to be a good time to do it!”
The timing may be just right, but with 43 studio albums to her credit, Parton sure has a challenge ahead of her when it comes to carving out a set list within the framework of only a sole show. Even so, she assures the faithful flocking to Ravinia that the evening will have plenty of hits in addition to a smattering of her upcoming tunes, plus a completely homespun approach that puts a top priority on music and dialogue over production. “Pure & Simple is both the name of the show and the new CD,” she explains. “It’s all love songs, and we’ll be doing a few songs from that, and of course we’ll be doing all of our standards—‘Jolene,’ ‘I Will Always Love You,’ ‘9 to 5,’ ‘Islands in the Stream,’ and all that stuff. Then we’ll do our little gospel things and we’ll have our corny jokes. [Laughs] We have a little folk song section that we’ll do, and as far as the band, it’s just the four of us on stage: Richard Dennison [keyboards], Tom Rutledge [guitar] and Kent Wells [guitar]. We just kind of swap off different instruments, it’s pretty much scaled down, there’s not a lot of loud music and we don’t have a bunch of videos or anything going on in the background. So it’s pretty much just us-n’s [and] I’ll tell lots of stories as we go!”
As the chat continues, Parton also seems overjoyed to share several reflections on Pure & Simple for the very first time, and while she repeatedly reiterates her tour will still be stacked with old favorites, she can’t help but beam over a few of her new babies. “First of all, I needed a song called ‘Pure & Simple’ and then I wrote that one,” she shares of developing the project’s easygoing concept. “And then I thought, ‘Well, you know, what’s this album going to be about? Is it all going to be just pure, simple, and plain songs?’ But I started to write them, and they all turned out to just be songs about different kinds of love. I just took off, acted on faith, and wrote what songs came to mind. … I like the title song a lot. In fact, I’m going to open the show with it. There’s another song called ‘Outside Your Door,’ which is a fun little soulful piece that’s simple in nature. Another one we’re doing in the show is called ‘Never Not Love You’ and it’s a sweet little song that’s a little bit uptempo.
“These are all new songs with the exception of two I pulled from the old Porter [Wagoner]/Dolly days. There’s an old song called ‘Tomorrow Is Forever,’ which I always thought was a really good song, and I’ve done it [in that] really Pure & Simple style. There’s another one that I actually used a little bit of in the Coat of Many Colors movie called ‘Say Forever You’ll Be Mine.’ Everything else is new things that have not been heard, but I wrote them all. … I seemed to be in a very inspired mood. I just love to paint pictures with songs.”
Indeed, the list of completed canvases is practically endless for Parton—besides all of the aforementioned oldies and newbies, including such enduring smashes as “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Here You Come Again,” “Two Doors Down,” and “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” And even after all these years of performing them practically every night, she seems incredibly sincere in assuring listeners they never grow tiresome, but actually evolve as each new generation unearths such timeless treasures. “They take different meanings at different times because you sing them to different people,” she asserts. “There are a whole lot of younger, new people that are just now getting tuned in and turned on to my music, and then the ones that have loved them all along always enjoy hearing them again.”
One such song is the set list staple “Coat of Many Colors,” which wasn’t just the narrative thread behind the movie and impetus behind this tour’s conversations, but also the basis of Parton’s very being. In fact, there’s probably no better autobiographical summary of her upbringing (outside of her actual autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business) than classic lines like: “I tried to make them see / One is only poor only if you choose to be / It is true we had no money / But I was rich as I could be / In my coat of many colors momma made for me.”
“I always talk about the ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and my mom, and of course now that the movie did so well, I’ve also written a song called ‘Mama,’ which I’ll probably sing before I start talking about home,” says Parton. “Talking about growing up in my grandpa’s church and why it means a lot to me … I think we are who we are because of the people we’re around and the way we grow up, but certainly we were brought up to have an open, big, and giving heart and that was, you know, the Christian way. That definitely has played a big part in [starting the Dollywood Foundation], but it also seems to be my nature. I love to do things for people.”
With practically her entire life spent entertaining or assisting others, one can’t help but wonder what a typical day off is like for Parton. Granted, her instantly recognizable, rhinestone-studded style and larger-than-life persona makes a trip to the mall practically impossible, but that doesn’t mean the celebrity can’t unplug with her husband of 50 years Carl Thomas Dean like regular folks from time to time.
“What’s a day off?” she initially ponders with a giggle. “I don’t have many days off, but my husband and I always try to always have the weekends free if I can when I’m not in Nashville. We like to go out [to] our little lake house and sit around and just relax. I read a little bit, cook some, and sleep a lot. We just kind of act lazy, have a good, restful weekend, and then get ready to go back to work the next day.”
Though Parton could easily be forgiven if she chooses to rest on her laurels as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a star holder on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a recipient of the “Living Legend Award” from the Library of Congress, her zeal for living and creating is absolutely unquenchable even at 70, which she credits to “a good doctor, good lighting, good make-up, and a good attitude!” And believe it or not, there are still a few items left on her bucket list, which given her unbeatable track record, are sure to get checked off sooner than later.
“I’m just carrying my bucket and it’s just full of all kinds of things. I’ve got buckets on both sides!” Parton exclaims with her razor sharp wit, all but erasing the distance of miles between Music City and the Windy City. “I someday hope to see my life story on Broadway as a musical, and someday I’d love to have a cosmetic line and that sort of thing, but as far as a bucket list, I seem to kind of do pretty much what I want. It just sometimes takes a little time to get it done. I have a line in one of my songs [‘The Sacrifice’] that says, ‘Empty or full / I’ve carried my pail / You don’t drink the water / If you don’t dig the well.’ So I’m busy digging a well and carrying my bucket all around now.”
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Downbeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.
Dolly Parton performs on August 7 at Ravinia.