Friday, May 9, 2008

Dolly Parton Shines at the Chicago Theatre, May 8, 2008

photographs by Daniel Peter

"There ain't nothin' real about me but my heart," Dolly Parton told the sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, May 8. From the bleach blond wig (that she said came from a real nice Korean girl) to the voluptuous breasts (yes, they are even bigger up close -- and no, they ain't real), Dolly Parton brought her "Backwoods Barbie" tour to the Windy City -- and the crowd couldn't have been happier. The singer who has sold more than 100 million albums, has written hundreds of songs and has touched more hearts than you can shake a stick at was nothing but joyful and full of fun lovin' that night.

But one thing you notice when you're sitting up close (we lucked out and got fourth row center) is that Ms. Dolly, for all her talent and gumption, unfortunately lip synched a lot of her songs -- apparently the "ain't nothin' real" line wasn't just about her looks. This was a big surprise, and disappointment, because when you knew she was actually singing, she sounded great. But it almost didn't matter because she put on such a great show regardless. She played a bit of the banjo, harpsichord, violin, piano, recorder, a rhinestone-studded dulcimer and a worn-out, old acoustic guitar that was strapped on with nothing but a piece of rope -- apparently you can take the girl out of the Smoky Mountains but she's bringin' 'em with her wherever she goes. And thank god for that.

It was that poor upbringing that made Dolly the icon she is today. It was in that house in the backwoods where she lived with her parents and 11 siblings that Dolly first realized her talent. They'd all sing, dance and play instruments together. Her mother encouraged her and would bring the whole family down to church where her granddaddy was a Pentecostal preacher (oy, I can only imagine!) and they'd all sing and dance. She said they called them the Holy Rollers. Despite her family being dirt poor, Dolly learned that it isn't money and material possessions that make one happy, rather the love of friends and family. And a lot of that comes out in her music.

It didn't take long for her to get to a classic -- "Jolene," a song about a woman who tried to steal Dolly's husband a long time ago. She said she saw her recently and that "she doesn't look so good now," and added her trademark giggle. She introduced a number of tracks from her new album, Backwoods Barbie, including the title song, "Only Dreamin'," "Jesus and Gravity," "Better Get to Livin'," and "The Lonesomes," a surprise blues track on an otherwise mostly mainstream country album -- her first in years.

But it was her hits like the heartbreaking and autobiographical "Coat of Many Colors," "Here You Come Again" (one of my personal favorites), "Islands in the Stream" and "9 to 5" that really got the crowd up on its feet. She played two sets -- that each had a costume change (she wore a skin tight sequined white jumpsuit with a sheer coat in the first set and a red rhinestoned and fringed outfit that really put her, um, girls front and center during the second set). She also let her band -- about eight or nine players and singers -- have their moment in the second set when they ran through a medley of hits from the '50s and '60s showcasing classic songs like "Great Balls of Fire," "Johnny B. Goode" and "My Girl." Dolly encored with her biggest song, which was made even bigger by Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You."

Throughout it all, however, Dolly treated her fans to what they really came for -- a taste of Dolly. Even though she did lip sync some, it didn't matter. Many consider dolly an icon and a national treasure and they came to see her in all her good ole Southern glory. She told stories, cracked jokes and interacted with a number of fans. She's honest, self-deprecating and full of life. There's a reason she's one of the most successful singers -- country or mainstream -- of all time. She has a personality larger than life -- but not quite as big as her boobs. And she wouldn't have it any other way. As she says, "It costs a lot to look this cheap." Amen, sister.