Beams from the spotlights reflected off the gold sequins on Dolly Parton’s fitted pantsuit and into the sold-out audience at the Grand Ole Opry House Saturday night in Nashville, Tennesee. The previous week was stacked with Opry performances from country music’s biggest names and brightest stars singing their favorite Parton songs in anticipation for the moment she took the stage Saturday night to celebrate her 50th anniversary as an Opry member.
“This whole week is very special,” Parton said to The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, before she played her first 30-minute set at the Opry’s 7 p.m. show.
“I’m just grateful for all of it. Who knows when you’re starting how you’re going to turn out? Now, here I am at 73 years old looking back on my life and thinking, ‘I’m still here, and they’re still allowing me to feel like I’m important in the business.’ It’s a beautiful wonderful thing.”
Over the weekend singers, including Chris Janson, Margo Price, Dierks Bentley, Emmylou Harris, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum and Hank Williams, Jr., honored Parton from the Opry’s sacred wooden circle.
“We are just over the moon (to be part of Parton’s celebration),” said Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott. She and the trio’s Charles Kelley reinvented the Parton/Kenny Rogers classic “Islands in the Stream.” “I feel so blessed we got to sing this song tonight.”
Friday and Saturday night shows were filmed for an NBC television special dubbed “Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry” that will air 8 p.m. Nov. 26 on the network.
“It’s been a great honor to be a part of the Grand Ole Opry all these years,” Parton said. “It was always my dream. To have a whole celebration and to have it televised, it’s really a wonderful thing to round out my life like that. So, if I die the day after tomorrow … I’m not going anywhere. I just meant, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great way to go?’”
Parton wowed the crowd with songs that span her decades-long career. After strutting to her spot center stage, she introduced “Joshua,” which she said was one of her first big country records.
“It’s about an ole boy I fell in love with back there in the Smokies,” she explained before launching into the song. “That takes me back in time. I’ve been writing songs since I was a little ole bitty thing. I used to love to write songs because back in the early days we didn’t have a lot of television, and we didn’t get to go to the movies. I’d write stories and paint pictures, and I’d sing them to my family. We felt like we were going to the movies. Some of them are true. Some of them are false, and some of them are based on a thread of truth – like this one.”
Parton launched into her famous “Jolene,” the impetus for one of her new Netflix movies starring Julianne Hough as the title character that will be out later this year.
At the end of the song, someone in the audience yelled: “I love you, Dolly.”
She quipped: “I told you to wait in the truck.”
'Never leave a rhinestone unturned'
The crowd roared. Her bedazzled dulcimer was on stage waiting, and the Country Music Hall of Famer eased onto a stool and put the instrument across her lap.
“I never leave a rhinestone unturned,” she said.
Parton, a native of Sevier County in East Tennessee, followed with “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” On the same sentimental heartstring, she moved into stories about her beloved parents Avie Lee and Robert Parton. She talked about how her mother made their clothes, sewed curtains for their home from feed sacks, and taught them that just because they had nothing.
“I’m not complaining,” Parton said. “We were poor, but those memories have made me rich and not in money – but in gratefulness and being humble.”
The sentiment inspired one of Parton’s signature hits “Coat of Many Colors,” which she performed. The singer said that after the song was successful, she told her mother she wanted to take her to Knoxville and buy her a mink coat. Her mother soundly rejected the offer.
“A mink coat? Where am I gonna wear a mink coat around here?” Parton remembers her mother asking. “Besides, I don’t want something that something has already wore. Just give me the money.”
Parton gave her the money.
“Right after I lost Mama several years ago, it was just so hard for me to sing that song,” Parton explained. “Now it’s like a sweet spirit in my heart brings her back to us.”
“Here You Come Again” made her setlist as did an energetic version of “9 to 5.” Parton, who launched her career performing with Porter Wagoner, welcomed Wagoner’s famed banjo player Buck Trent on stage to join her for Wagoner’s biggest hit “Carroll County Accident.”
She closed her set with “I Will Always Love You.”
Crowd members wiped away tears. As she did following every song, Parton received a standing ovation. And that’s not all she received. At a backstage reception between shows, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee presented Parton with a proclamation declaring Oct. 12 Dolly Parton Day.
“I just love this, and I feel very special,” Parton said. “What else you got for me?”
Nine hours after the 73-year-old Parton did her first interview of the day at the Grand Ole Opry House, she returned to the stage and played her show all over again for the next crowd.