Plenty of successful country performers have effectively turned their backs on Nashville in an effort to devote their attention to roots music, but few “conversions” were more surprising than Dolly Parton’s. Several years back, the brassy icon shed the trappings of Music City — save for those beloved, overdone outfits — and nestled deep in the heart of her Tennessee mountain home. Launching her first full-scale tour in more than a decade with this sold-out perf, Parton brought a good bit of that East Tennessee atmosphere with her. The audience breathed it in hungrily, maintaining a rapt silence through delicate songs like “Little Sparrow” and hooting unabashedly for party-starters such as “Orange Blossom Special.”
Parton, who accompanied herself on guitar, mandolin, banjo and harmonica, devoted a good portion of the 90-minute set to winsome songs that beautifully showcased her fragile soprano (including an appropriately trembling take on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”). She did kick out the jams now and again, though, with the best of the uptempo numbers being a cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” and her own “Jolene.”
Parton continues to draw a crowd in part due to her winning personality: Rather than lecture about the superiority of her current path, she prods listeners along with humor, noting that her band can play “bluegrass, folk and even hick-hop.” That intro, naturally enough, led to the singer hamming her way through “Who Let the Hogs Out?”
For most of the set, Parton hopscotched from her recent bluegrass albums — including the just-released Sugar Hill disc “Halos and Horns” — and her earliest material. In sharp contrast to most of her peers, the singer chose to relegate her crossover hits, rather than mistily recalled oldies, to the dreaded midset medley.
But even that ordinarily hoary interlude was treated to a spin when Parton called members of her backing band — the nattily dressed Blueniques — to centerstage to serve up five-part a capella renditions of “Islands in the Stream” and “Here You Come Again.”
It wasn’t so much that Parton was dismissing those songs, or the set-ending “I Will Always Love You,” for that matter. It was simply that, in like generations of country girls before her, she’s learned she must go where her heart leads.
Parton plays the House of Blues in Los Angeles on Aug. 7. The show is already sold-out.