Hello Dolly

I hate Carrot Top.

Every time I see a "Dial 1-800-CALL-ATT" commercial, I dream of delivering a severe beating to that orange-haired idiot. Yet when my opportunity actually came, I blew it.

Last week, as my buddy Tom and I were waiting at the St. Louis airport for his mother to arrive from Cincinnati, the so-called comedian huffed right past us. And I let him escape, unharmed. Why? Because he looked miserable. Haggard, hurried, and obviously out of sorts rushing through the terminal, he barely managed to force a smile for one youngster who recognized him. Point being, some individuals aren't cut out to handle the rigors of fame, however fleeting, with grace.

Dolly Parton doesn't have this problem.

St. Louis was the penultimate stop on Dolly's first U.S. tour in a decade, and since Seattle wasn't on the route, Tom, his mom, and I decided to go to her. We also pulled a couple strings and arranged to attend a preshow meet-and-greet with the country legend. We had no idea whether the encounter would be as brief as a handshake, or an actual audience. Either would've sufficed. We just wanted to be able to say, "I met Dolly Parton."

Our passes waiting at the box office declared, "I'm A Guest of Dolly Tonight," with her flamboyant signature set in a star. Before the night ended, several folks would offer us money for these souvenirs. When one of Dolly's handlers told the chosen few waiting at the stage door that Dolly would happily sign autographs, I broke down and purchased a copy of her Little Sparrow CD from the merchandise table . . . for the low, low price of 20 bucks.

Tom and I have both met our share of famous musicians, but our entire trio was starstruck as soon as we were ushered into the dressing room. Dolly is, to cop a clich鬠radiant. And tiny. She looks like Tinkerbell, albeit with a huge rack (which I later realized I kept staring at, despite my lifelong disinterest in women's breasts) and 5-inch stilettos.

Our visit flashed by like a hastily edited video montage: handshakes all around, a couple photos, a couple jokes, and out comes the Sharpie. The bubbly entertainer laughed at her own visage when Tom pulled out two vintage Country Song Roundup magazines to sign, and I kicked myself for not to dragging my copy of her 1967 solo debut, Hello, I'm Dolly, across the country. What would she have thought looking at the only record sleeve of her career where she's (apparently) not wearing a wig? Nowadays, Annie Leibovitz shoots Parton's album art and the singer openly discusses her plastic surgery.

As we scurried out to make way for the next round of suppliants, Tom asked Dolly if she remembered Hillbilly Village, a low-budget theme park not far from the current site of Dollywood that he loved as a boy. Yes, she said, adding, "Wherever I am is Hillbilly Village!"

An hour later, Dolly hit the stage of the Pageant Theater with "Train, Train," from her Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue. The program focused almost exclusively on material from her three most recent albums, plus the big hits. In a small venue setting, the newer tunes sounded even livelier than on disc, but the real surprise was her ability to revitalize overplayed favorites. She opened a rough-hewn "9 to 5" by demonstrating how she created the typewriter sound effect on that 1980 No. 1—by rubbing her long, acrylic nails together. Although she resorted to cramming several crowd-pleasers into a medley, she added a spin by singing them with an a cappella quintet.

Having compared notes with friends who caught her earlier D.C. and New York concerts, I knew the program was as tightly constructed as the formfitting, cream-and-brocade suit Dolly wore. As predicted, she dedicated "Jolene" to her cross- dressing fans, altering a key lyric to "and I cannot compete with you . . . drag queens." Yet like the star of a long-running Broadway show, she still manages to make time-worn material feel fresh. And although her patter was clearly polished, she was also capable of clever ad-libs. When she accidentally shattered a glass, Parton joked, "Oh, I thought the setting fell out of one of my rings."

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Ray Mark Rinaldi noted in his Thursday morning review of the show, Parton is a mix of contradictions: an accomplished musician—she played banjo, guitar, harmonica, and dulcimer in the show—and songwriter, who is also a flashy entertainer of Las Vegas proportions. She's among the world's richest women ("it takes a lot of money to look this cheap"), yet still talks incessantly about her dirt-poor Tennessee upbringing. But that's really the key to her enduring appeal. Being so famous, yet still coming off as "just plain folks," both onstage and off, is an accomplishment that shouldn't be overlooked. And I reckon if ever I meet Dolly Parton again, I'll still feel warm and fuzzy toward her.

Carrot Top, however, won't be so lucky.

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