Although she closed the show singing “the song that got me here,” “Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton was mostly a spectator during a two-hour tribute show that was the centerpiece of the annual MusiCares dinner in Los Angeles Friday night. And she had a quip about that, as she does for every occasion.
“It’s been such a thrill for me tonight to see all these great artists that are singing songs that I’ve written or been a part of,” she said, bidding farewell to several thousand guests inside an L.A. Convention Center ballroom, where artists from Willie Nelson to Shawn Mendes had performed. “Watching them is sort of like watching porn. You’re not personally involved, but you still get off on it. So I really got off on this show tonight. Hey, at my age, you’ll take anything you can get. But seriously…”
The phrase “But seriously…” popped up in her MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech a lot, usually followed by something else not entirely serious. “People say to me, ‘Well, wasn’t it a man’s world back when you got in the business?’ I said, it sure was, and buddy, I had a ball. Because I actually have worked with so many wonderful men, and I’ve never met a man that I didn’t like. And I’ve never met a man whose ass I couldn’t kick if he didn’t treat me with the right respect. But you gotta remember, I also still have that pistol in my purse” — she was referring to a film clip of her threatening Dabney Coleman from “9 to 5” — “and I can still change him from a rooster to a hen with one shot. So these 9-inch nails and 5-inch stilettos are lethal weapons. But seriously…”
The stars turned out for Parton in serious force. Shawn Mendes and Miley Cyrus are expected to perform together on Sunday’s Grammy Awards telecast, and they did a warm-up for that Friday by reprising the Bee Gees-penned tune that Parton and Kenny Rogers had a No. 1 pop hit with in 1983, “Islands in the Stream.” “I want her legs and diamonds,” gushed one of the show’s hosts, Little Big Town singer Karen Fairchild, of Cyrus’ bling and gams.
Pink opened the performance portion of the benefit singing “Jolene” in a jacket with Parton’s visage embroidered on the back. Brandi Carlile and Willie Nelson quickly followed with a terrific duet of a deeper track, “Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way),” a fairly obscure-at-this-point 1982 single that had Parton, its writer, dueting with Nelson. Chris Stapleton, of all the people to join the secretarial pool, was a surprise choice to put some grit in “Nine to Five.”
If there was a discovery for many of the thousands on hand at the dinner, it was popular Christian music singer Lauren Daigle, who’s poised to cross over to pop, taking to the acoustic center stage to sing “The Seeker,” a Parton spiritual from 1975. From the Christian to the fairly carnal, Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves teamed up for “Here You Come Again,” a shorter version of which they’re expected to reprise as part of a Parton tribute segment on Sunday’s Grammy telecast.
Don Henley and Vince Gill harmonized on “Eagle When She Flies,” an on-the-nose title/performer match if ever there were one. Mavis Staples and Leon Bridges were joined by a gospel chorale for the most recent catalog pick, “Not Enough,” which Parton performed alongside Queen Latifah in their choir-themed 2012 movie “Joyful Noise.”
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood took their turn at the acoustic stage with “Old Flames (Don’t Hold a Candle to You).” Also appearing on that platform were Norah Jones and the all-women band Puss in Boots, doing a less bluegrass-y version of “The Grass is Blue,” from Parton’s 1999 back-to-roots album of that name.
The sole standing ovation for a performance during the evening came for a bravura “I Will Always Love You” by gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who was doing a strictly faithful cover of Whitney Houston’s cover, from the a cappella opening to the loud snare drum kick right before the climactic key change.
But there was also a standing greeting for a pair of artists who didn’t sing — Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, the latter of whom, as Parton pointed out, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and can no longer perform, but who appeared to be in high spirits at the podium. The hit album that Parton, Harris and Ronstadt recorded in the mid-‘80s, “Trio,” was represented in the program by “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” sung by the newfangled trio of Margo Price, Cam and Jennifer Nettles.
Actually, there was one other “Trio” number, as well, although it hadn’t been on the set list. Asked to stretch between band setups, the show’s hosts, country quartet Little Big Town, decided to try to resurrect a song from that album they’d sung in their off time in the distant past. “Do you know the key?” they asked each other before quickly finding it as they launched into a seemingly spontaneous version of the hillbilly classic “Those Memories of You.” “That was pretty good stretching!” Kimberly Schlapman declared upon sticking the landing.
At the close, Parton had Grammy-nominated producer Linda Perry (with whom she recently co-wrote songs for the movie “Dumplin’”) play guitar for her while she sang “Coat of Many Colors.” “I have my nails too long to pick tonight because I’m getting ready for the Grammys,” she explained.
Preceding that finale, Parton spoke about the charitable work for which she was being rewarded, including a recent telethon for victims of the fires in her native east Tennessee, but mostly for the Imagination Library, which endeavors to guarantee an increasing number of children in the U.S. and Canada a free book every month until they turn 5. “I want to be known more for books than looks in my life,” she said. “I started that little program because of my dad, who could not read nor write, but he was one of the smartest people I’ve known in spite of that. … The Bible talks about ‘honor your father and mother.’ Well, I wanted to do something to honor him.”
Parton said she took pride in being “the first country artist to be honored” as a MusiCares Person of the Year. “Of course you know us hillbillies need music care too,” she added, referring to the Recording Academy-associated charity’s mission to assist musicians struggling with substance abuse issues. “We may not have sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but two out of three ain’t bad.”
The zingers continued. “I truly can feel the love in this house tonight. Either that or my phone’s on vibrate. But seriously — all of my life I have been known for two things. Well, not them. I’ve also been known as a singer and songwriter, too. Although I’m not complaining. Old Poncho and Lefty’s been pretty good to me. Everybody always expects me to do a boob joke and I like to do one right up front. And I was looking at al those pictures,” she added, referring to a photo montage that included a possibly regrettable perm from the ‘80s days when she was costarring in movies with Sylvester Stallone. “You know, I really thought my hair looked good back then. Can you believe that hair? Now that’s country music at its finest.”
And then it was time for just one number from the honoree, who prefaced it in her characteristically stately manner. “I know it’s late and I know you want to pee. I know I do.”
Between the dinner tickets and a silent and live auction (including two meet-and-greets with Parton at her theme park, Dollywood, one of which had a winning bid of $90,000 from Parton’s goddaughter, Miley), the evening raised $6.7 million for MusiCares, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow announced.