As goes one of Dolly Parton’s most classic one-liners, “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” A similar sort of logic applies to her 2016 Pure and Simple Tour, a stripped-down and mostly acoustic affair featuring Dolly, a three-piece band and a few stage accessories.
The truth is that it takes a lot of work and planning to make even a relatively uncomplicated production like this one unfold so smoothly, cover so much territory and look so easy. It also takes a star of Parton’s uncommonly high caliber to completely engage an audience without the use of video accompaniment, elaborate lighting and other high-end production elements to which today’s concertgoers have become so accustomed.
As she has no doubt done on the dozens of shows she’s performed since the 60-plus-date tour launched in early June, Parton easily captivated the 10,000 fans attending her concert at Huntsville’s Propst Arena on Nov. 16 with classic songs ranging from “Jolene” and the early-career composition “Tennessee Mountain Home” to crossover smashes “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5,” as well as a couple of cuts from her recent No. 1 album “Pure & Simple.”
In what played almost like a one-woman show with live musical accompaniment, Parton stitched together a broad overview of her musical career with humor and intimate stories about her fairytale-like life starting in the East Tennessee mountains and ending up at the pinnacle of international fame. Punctuating her comments with an almost impossibly girlish giggle, the 70-year-old offset her superstar status with a relaxed, unselfconscious demeanor that rang with believable humility, demonstrating a pure, tremulous voice that has weathered the decades wonderfully—even in spite of a cold that forced her to take a few apologetic nose-blowing breaks.
Using these as platforms for more of her trademark levity, she offered her first tissue to prospective eBay sellers in jest (“star snot,” she quipped) and later admitted relief that the cold hadn’t settled in her famously over-ample chest: a scenario she hilariously likened to “a giraffe with a sore throat.” While jokes like this one have surely been employed perhaps countless times before, it’s to Parton’s credit as an entertainer that she delivers them so casually as to seem off the cuff. There were moments that might have been legitimately spontaneous, such as the line she tossed out while standing in stage fog—”I feel like the swamp monster”—but in the end, it was nearly impossible to determine whether her jokes were impromptu or planned.
Similarly, Parton’s extended monologues about her family and her Smoky Mountain upbringing, which featured anecdotes she’s told hundreds or more times and most of her fans likely already knew, were freshened by the love and warmth in the telling. Seated on a small front-porch set, she alternated tales of family members with songs underscoring memories of home (“Coat of Many Colors,” “Smoky Mountain Memories,” “Applejack”) and the religious upbringing that found expression at several points in the show (“Precious Memories,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Seeker,” “He’s Alive”).
If the sequencing of the show’s segments (as well as the pre-programmed drums she humorously revealed to the audience early in the evening) demanded a certain rigidity of presentation, Parton’s easygoing manner and flowing banter served to keep the underpinnings of showbiz choreography effectively concealed.
The respective vocal strengths of Parton’s three onstage musicians proved a major contribution throughout the show, creating a powerful blanket of harmony around Parton’s trademark twitter on featured numbers including a late-20th-century folk-music medley and an a cappella performance of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” one of two tunes she unearthed from the Trio recordings she made along with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
In an odd bit of novelty vocalizing, they then reprised the song while imitating a 45 rpm record set on 78 (a gag more readily understood by older members of the crowd). While her band offered solid accompaniment, it was primarily Parton who took the occasional solos on instruments including pennywhistle, harmonica, fiddle and saxophone as well as accompanying herself variously on banjo, guitar, piano and dulcimer.
Dolly Parton’s musical and songwriting talents alone would justify the success of her large-scale Pure & Simple Tour, though the blond songstress long ago broke the glass ceiling for female entertainers and is of course known worldwide as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, multimillionaire and celebrity virtually without parallel. To watch her charm an audience in such a neighborly fashion is to marvel at how someone of her elevated stature can relate so effortlessly and sincerely to folks of all ages and occupations. Perhaps no one in show business has ever blurred the line between person and persona as convincingly as Dolly Parton.
When considering her many talents and accomplishments, it’s her gift of naturalness that is rarest of all: this gift, in the end, was what turned a smartly designed and well-honed bit of show business into a pure and simple night to be remembered.