Dolly Parton – review

Nottingham Arena

For Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's protagonist Arthur Seaton, "the best and bingiest glad-time of the week" in Nottingham was Saturday night, no question. But there were plenty of glad rags out in force in the city on Monday night. Walking through the city centre, mini-gaggles of women and couples appeared from the side streets, all converging on the arena. Some were wearing pink Stetsons. Some were wearing pink fluffy Stetsons. Some were wearing pink fluffy Stetsons with flashing lights and a blonde wig. A look possibly too garish for a Saturday hen night in Blackpool, let alone Nottingham on a Monday night. And that was just the blokes. I'm exaggerating, but not much.

The vast majority of fans flocking to see this Dollywood blockbuster of a gig were, naturally, from the populist "I Will Always Love You" and Steel Magnolias end of Dolly's fanbase, rather than the bluegrass end.

She may be best known for "9 to 5", but the self-styled backwoods Barbie has been working as a musician from nine to 65, releasing 41 albums, mostly country, but with varying influences, from bluegrass to gospel to pop. She's sold more than 100 million records but never strayed far from her working-class roots – even the lyrics to "9 to 5" are an ode to those struggling on the minimum wage.

More recently, Dolly has spent time 30-odd miles up the M1 in Rotherham, launching the first UK branch of Imagination Library, the literacy scheme funded by the Dollywood Foundation, which has already given free books to around 12 million kids in America. She was affronted when the idea of her in the Chuckle Brothers' hometown prompted mirth. "I thought, you know what, don't make fun of me," she told Radio 4. "I totally related to Rotherham." She even toyed with the idea of getting a flat there.

Even if you've experienced her live before, it's still remarkable to see such a diminutive figure stroll out and immediately command a vast arena, as she segues from the intro of "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" into "Walking on Sunshine". There has been debate on Dolly forums about whether she lip-synchs parts of the current show and, on the more upbeat numbers, her vocal doesn't always seem entirely live, but the show is more Vegas than Unplugged.

The two-and-a-half-hour show is punctuated by polished inter-song banter, from signature catchphrases such as: "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap" to reminiscing about growing up in the Smoky Mountains, one of 12 children. "We put Momma on a pedestal… we had to, to stop Daddy getting at her." She tells how she originally modelled herself on a prostitute in her hometown, with goldfish in her plastic high heels, who was the "purtiest thing I ever saw". She's never been shy of self-deprecation, leaving no rhinestone unturned when it comes to poking fun at her own caricature. This is the woman who claimed: "I was the first woman to burn my bra, it took the fire department four days to put it out." But for the most part, she stops just short of overly sugarcoating the sentimentalism and the relentless cheerfulness is counterbalanced by the melancholy at the heart of her best songs.

The hits are scattered throughout the set. "You remember that old red-haired girl called Jolene, dontcha?" she asks rhetorically, four songs in. She then draws her band in closer and runs through a 15-minute bluegrass melody incorporating "Rocky Top" – the city dwellers lament for a freer existence in Tennessee – the Beatles' "Help!" and "Stairway to Heaven", from 2002's Halos & Horns.

There are a couple of points when the show becomes too schmaltzy, not least a cover of "Son of a Preacher Man", when Dolly picks up a sparkling saxophone. "I'm feeling sax-y!" she declares. I'm not sure she was playing the sax-y, though the song is a tour de force that belies her 65 years. Reportedly, Jack White and Lady Gaga are both keen on working with Dolly. Personally, I'd much rather hear a collaboration with White (who produced Loretta Lynn's Grammy-winning 2004 album Van Lear Rose) than Gaga, which would only cement the Barbie caricature.

Towards the end, most of Dolly's fans are up on their feet for "Islands in the Stream" – now adopted by a younger generation as a "guilty pleasure" but lapped up tonight without an ounce of guilt – and the closing favourites "9 to 5" and "I Will Always Love You". I'm sure the behatted Blackpool Barbies don't bother the backwoods Barbie one iota, but you can't help feel it's a shame if, for many, the caricature ultimately overshadows the music. Let's hope those in the kiss-me-quick hats also appreciate the squeeze-me-slowly moments.


Luke Bainbridge

The GuardianTramp

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