As goes Dolly, so goes the South?
Call me crazy, but at a Meadowlands concert last November, it had crossed my mind that Dolly Parton -- proud fake flower of the South -- might have been flirting with quasi-political statement. In the midst of her half-dozen costume changes, flashing lights, waving American flags and medley of greatest hits, she had paused to talk about her memories of the 1960s before launching into treacly and overproduced versions of Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee" and John Lennon's "Imagine." I can't explain it, but it felt significant at the time -- intentional, pointed. Then again, in those weeks, it felt like weather forecasts and movie listings were telegraphing coded messages of post-election woe.
But on Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, it seemed that maybe I had been on to something in November. Parton performed in New York on the second stop of her "Vintage" tour to promote the October release of "Those Were the Days," an album of covers from the 1960s and 1970s, including songs by Lennon, Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan.
By comparison with last fall, the show was practically Spartan: no costume changes, no medleys, not so many spotlight pyrotechnics. Parton sang full, gorgeous renditions of songs like "Smoky Mountain Memories" and "Coat of Many Colors," as well as the poppier "9 to 5" and "Here You Come Again." Sure, she was clad in a dress of many rhinestones, and there were the requisite boob jokes. But there were also the reminiscences about her good friend Jane Fonda. And her well-worn memories of a poor upbringing in Tennessee, how her "mama always had one [baby] on her and one in her," were accompanied on Thursday by an unfamiliar nostalgia for "the old hippie days" of the 1960s.
About an hour into the show, Parton picked up a guitar that looked like it had lost a fierce battle with a Bedazzler and began to talk in earnest about that old-time activism. "I didn't necessarily agree with all the politics of that time," she said, "but I think a lot of the things they were talking about -- like peace and freedom -- are about as American as apple pie." She then performed the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn."
And she wasn't done. Barely pausing for breath, she moved to Dylan, talking about how important it was that he had sung songs that had mattered to the country. She'd recently been listening to his antiwar classic "Blowin' in the Wind," she said, and had thought, "Well this song is about what's going on right now! I've got to record this."
Parton's live cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" should probably have been cringe-inducing, but it wasn't. Stripped down to Parton's powerful pipes and a guitar, it worked. And she definitely enunciated particular verses, especially the questions "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?" Parton, who had perfect silence for the first half of the song, finished it to a massive standing ovation from the New York crowd. And however unlikely the messenger, it was almost impossible to imagine the lyrics being about anything other than a direct message to George W. Bush.
Parton's final protest song was "Imagine," which she prefaced by wishing that John Lennon had lived to see whether we would ever have peace. "I don't know that we ever will have it," she said with a casual laugh, "'cause we seem to like to fight a lot, I guess. But I still think it's something we can hope for and that we should hope for." The cover was much better than it had been in November, and she asked the audience to sing along to the song's final plea that "the world will live as one." I had really cheap seats, but I'm pretty sure she flashed a peace sign.
Parton, 59, will probably never appear on a "Vote for Change" lineup; she cannot afford to go all Dixie Chicks on her red-state fan base. And her performance Thursday didn't necessarily convince me that she would want to. A longtime interpreter of Scottish folk, bluegrass and mountain music, Parton may just have turned her attention to a more recent genre of grass-roots melody. But it's pretty telling timing, and Parton is a very, very smart woman.
Whatever her politics, she was careful to remind her New York audience that she was still a mountain girl at heart. The granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher, she happily talked about her faith, and made a point of finishing up the show with her post-9/11 song "Hello, God."
But even that upbeat spiritual fit the mood of her show. Here's how it goes:
This old world has gone to pieces
Can we fix it, is there time?
Hate and violence just increases
We're so selfish, cruel and blind
We fight and kill each other
In your name, defending you
Do you love some more than others?
We're so lost and confused
Hello God, we beseech you
In the name of all thats true
Hello God, please forgive us
For we know not what we do.