You may have heard of the South Park episode in which a rampaging Barbra Streisand could only be neutralized by her absolute opposite, Robert Smith. Similarly, if one person can exorcise Celine Dion from the Caesars Coliseum, it would be Dolly Parton. Realness from the bottom of her platform shoes to the teased-up top of her wig, Dolly's down-home manner and high-lonesome voice is as far from overwrought Cirque du Soleil dramatics as it gets. Not that the lady herself had a bad word to say about Celinestopheles during her December 7 show; she even expressed gratitude for the use of the place and praised her vocal talents, adding, "But I got bigger boobs than her."
Ah, yes, the boobs. Boobs are what we think of when we think of Dolly Parton—never mind that's shes got seven Grammys, plays over a dozen instruments and has written more than 3,000 songs. An awe-inspiring natural talent, packed into the glitzy caricature of a blond bombshell. A softhearted backwoods girl whose company rakes in over $200 million a year. Dolly's fans include the most shitkicking of rednecks and most flamboyant of homosexuals, with urban hipsters, suburban moms and country squires in between. The woman is a national treasure and a natural wonder, like the Grand Canyon—only sorta in reverse.
Dolly's on tour with her new Live and Well disc and, fittingly, the show covered as much of her more than 30-year career as possible in 90 minutes, from the early days with Porter Wagoner, on with the "Coat of Many Colors," through the TV variety show and 9 to 5 and into her recent trio of stunning bluegrass albums. She took the stage to the accompaniment of "Hello Dolly" and a wave of adoration and awe swept through the audience: Nothing prepares you for the actuality of Dolly Parton. She's got more charisma than a whole kennel of dogs has fleas, the voice of God's favorite angel and, in person, the whole package looks even more like something Tex Avery and R. Crumb dreamed up while on a bender below the Mason-Dixon line.
The lady herself was part showgirl in a spotlight, part country girl at a porch sing. The costume was all flash—a pink sequined Capri pantsuit with what she called "add-ons": a series of equally pink hats, boas, skirts, robes and clip-on ponytails that looked exactly like the stuff that comes boxed with a Barbie doll. But her band was the solidly old-school Grascals, and the lady herself played eight instruments (not including fake nails and hambonin'), although every one of them had glitter on it.
The substance of the show was as mixed as the style. There was the opening show tune, then a remarkably stomping version of "9 to 5." She did a medley of some of her older radio hits—"Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That," "Here You Come Again" and "Two Doors Down," then went further back for "Coat of Many Colors" and a perfect "Jolene," on which Dolly proved she's got one of the best-preserved voices in the world; that trill sounds exactly like it did in 1974. The purist bluegrass title track of 1999's The Grass is Blue is one of the best of her many songs, an achingly simple ballad that Bob Dylan or Tom Waits would be proud of. I was not the only one sitting in a puddle of eyeliner by the time she breathed the last note. "That was for the heartbroken," she announced, "this one's for the kids" and launched into a piano-pumping version of Melanie's relentlessly perky "Brand New Key." After which, she hopped on top of the piano, called for her "Hollywood death stick" cigarette holder, an Oscar Goodman-size martini glass and draped herself in yet another pink feather boa—"Oh, I like this. It looks cheap!"—and purred a truly melting "Baby It's Cold Outside." She did "I Will Always Love You" with absolute sincerity (and a thanks to Whitney for making her all those royalties), "Viva Las Vegas" with a banjo and Collective Soul's "Shine" without sucking.
The show's highlight was "Little Sparrow," sung a cappella with the occasional fiddle drone. You hear much of this raising-goosebumps thing but, truly, Dolly gave them to the entire room with just that voice, as strong as moonshine and clear as a sky full of stars. After she finished, the whole audience sat a moment in stunned silence. We live in a world full of rotten: hunger, sickness, deceit, endless toil and unbearable sorrow. But at least it's a world that has Dolly Parton in it. If she ain't a miracle, I don't know what is. And the crowd erupts into applause.