At Dolly Parton’s appearance in Forest Hills, Queens on Saturday, the open stadium felt covered by the energy of passionate fans. When a woman’s voice screamed, “I love you, Dolly!” she replied calmly, “I love you, too,” and we believed it. When a man’s voice screamed, “I love you, Dolly!” she shouted, “I told you to wait in the truck!”
I have seen Dolly Parton live once before, at Radio City Music Hall when she was touring Backwoods Barbie. I remember crying a couple times, but was not prepared by the wave of emotion I experienced seeing her on stage again. Parton’s album due out this year is titled Pure and Simple, and she has launched her biggest tour in 25 years to promote it. She played two new songs, telling the audience apologetically that all old songs were new once. I turned to my friends, tears streaming down my face, and said, “Doesn’t she know how much we love her?”
They laughed at me.
Dolly Parton wanted everyone in the audience to know that they could enjoy the show however they felt like it—sitting, standing, singing along. But first she recommended sitting after everyone bounded to their feet for “Train, Train.” With her wonderful giggle she reminded us, “We’re gonna be here awhile.”
We were seated at the very back row, as far as you could get from the stage, with a vertigo-inducing drop at our backs. Far below, locals sat out in folding chairs, listening to Dolly Parton and picturing her glittering, energetic body on stage as the stars came out. From my spot, she was just a glimmer.
There is a vaudevillian comedic tone to a Dolly Parton show, mixed with borderline saccharine stories about her family. They’re stories you’ve almost certainly heard if you are any kind of fan, but much like the tales retold at your own family gatherings, it feels good and inclusive to hear them again. An affirmation of a myth, to remind us of who we are, who she is. Dolly Parton is a megawatt superstar, but even legends were just girls once.
Most of those girlhood stories revolve around her family’s poverty, for example the set-up to “Coat of Many Colors.” Dolly’s stagehand, a man in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, pushes out a white throne, from which she waxes poetic about not having much but making something out of it. Later in the night she’ll play the fiddle, point wildly at this cowboy and command, “YOU. DANCE.” And he does.
Dolly had a lot of anecdotes about getting what she wants from men. She maintains that “Jolene” is based off a woman who worked at the bank, where her husband was spending a lot of time. She told him, “I know you don’t have the kind of money to be spending so much time down at the bank.” After finishing the tune she declared with relish, “I spent a lot of time down at the bank with the money I made off that song.”
She also explained that she fired her drummer (?) after he criticized her wigs and rhinestones. She pointed to a machine that replaces the drumbeat, delighting in the fact that it only cost $450.
But the best was when she described meeting Warren Beatty, with the caveat that it happened when he was young and handsome. As for herself, she said, “I’m still in my prime.” A stomping started on one end of the stadium, traveling to the other like the Wave, the metallic shaking of the bleachers vibrating everyone out of their seats to scream for her.
At one point she played “Yakety Sax” on a tiny rhinestone saxophone:
Then she played it backwards. Walking backwards. It was the perfect dad joke.
Forest Hills Stadium has a hard ten o’clock curfew. After her encore number of “I Will Always Love You,” we watched her run back to check with men in the shadowy wings, then step back up. She’d been politely checking the time to see if she could do her final song. While Dolly Parton doesn’t exactly take political stances, she uses her platform to promote tolerance and inclusion. She is also unapologetically Christian. She took a moment to say how hard the news has been lately, and essentially it doesn’t matter who you love or what you believe in, it’s all fine. “There’s just one God and we’re all doing our best to get to him.”
Then she launched into “Hello God/He’s Alive.” This is a weird choice for a New York City crowd, but I, at least, was having a religious experience. Hearing Dolly Parton sing confuses the senses. It’s beyond sound, almost like being immersed in a running stream. I suppose it was also the pain of nostalgia, alongside this intense awareness of her imminent loss. Even if it’s 30 years from now, it feels imminent. Dolly Parton is 70 years old, and so many icons have left us this year. She declared, “I want to do this for a thousand years!” but she can’t. Time was passing all around us.
As Dolly Parton disappeared backstage on the arm of her cowboy, we were all left with the residual glow of her presence. Thousands of fireflies blinked with joy on their way to the E train.