LEWISTON – At age 70 and widely known for the qualities that have earned her the nickname “Backwoods Barbie,” Dolly Parton often jokes that her heart is the only thing about her that’s real; for all that’s obviously unreal about the country music star and American icon, her performance before an adoring crowd of 6,000 Sunday night at Artpark made clear that her downhome charm is genuine.
In the second week of a 60-city tour that stands as her longest in decades, Parton found herself joking at her own expense early on, as she initially declared her happiness to be in Ohio but quickly recovered, part of her natural charm prevailing in spite of a string of unnatural elements to her show. Backed by a trio of veterans in Kent Wells (guitar, vocals, bandleader), Richard Dennison (piano, vocals), and Tom Rutledge (bass, banjo, vocals) she joked after early-set renditions of chart-topping hits “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” and “Jolene” about how they’d decided to go without a drummer for the tour, instead using pre-recorded tracks on a $45 drum machine.
The song “Pure & Simple,” also the title of her tour and latest album, struck the same heartfelt and honest chords that have been her calling; same for “Precious Memories,” also an album title track – “precious sacred scenes unfold” sang the lyrics to one of more than 3,000 songs she’s written, serving as true poetry as the sun (“God’s lighting,” as she repeatedly called it) set into the Niagara River gorge beyond the stage in this splendid setting.
Parton’s between-song stories were as entertaining as her songs – “Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Coat of Many Colors” and “Smoky Mountain Memories” were intertwined with extended tales that illuminated their lyrics about growing up humble and hungry as one of 12 children in a small town.
For all this depth, Parton kept a lightheartedness to it all, joking between songs about the effects of the elements – when a cool breeze blew in, she urged the audience to throw her blonde wig back up to the stage in case it blew off.
Perhaps most comical, though, was her “performing” on 10 different instruments during the show – anyone who questioned her ability to pick a banjo with huge fake fingernails was justified when her miming of a fiddle solo during “Rocky Top” was topped in ridiculousness only by the following “Yakety Sax” saxophone solo that could’ve given Benny Hill a run for slapstick schlock.
While Parton at times seemed to be lip-syncing as well, she had a supporting chorus of thousands throughout her Americana medley of “American Pie,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
After closing the first set with “I’ll Fly Away” and opening the second with a new song along with a fresh outfit and wig, Parton pointed to an attendee in a gold rhinestone jumpsuit and suggested he come out of the closet – hers, that is. Such a colorful, captivating character she is, and such will be her legacy.