Dolly Parton brings bluegrass, folk, spiritual message to Mohegan Sun Arena
WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Adorned with humble white curtains and a modest three-piece band, the stage on Wednesday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena was representative of Dolly Parton’s upcoming double album release, “Pure & Simple.”
But when the center curtain rose Dolly was as glamorous as ever. In a gold dress with sparkling rhinestones, she greeted the Wyoming Valley with her trademark smile as her band announced, “Hello, Dolly.”
Parton’s performance was equal parts backwoods folk, bluegrass romp and Sunday sermon, all facilitated by her storytelling, taking her audience through her biography, songwriting history and — with poignant, witty and often self-deprecating humor — personal philosophy.
Opening with Shorty Medlocke’s “Train, Train,” the country icon showed her voice is still powerful as a locomotive, and the bluegrassy technicality of the song showcased the expert dexterity of her band.
Parton’s crowd engagement was forward, asking locals to remind her how to pronounce ‘Wilkes-Barre,’ and she got her first laugh of the night saying, “It costs a fortune to make somebody look this cheap,” referring to her appearance.
With a bedazzled acoustic guitar, Parton delivered songs old and new. She performed her eerily twangy and often covered hit “Jolene,” written to a woman who made an attempt at her husband, before moving to her unreleased title track “Pure & Simple,” a gospel love song thumped out on an upright bass.
Parton began telling of her childhood in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and early church influences before performing “Precious Memories,” a John Wright tune that, with its hymnal feel, made purple lit curtains look like pastoral robes.
Picking up her dulcimer, Parton showed her prowess as a multi-instrumentalist on “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” before playing “Coat of Many Colors,” a song honoring her mother, who mended clothing for 12 children while keeping them aware that they were rich with love despite their dearth of money.
Several Smokey Mountain tunes like “Applejack,” about a moonshiner who taught Parton to play banjo — which she did — and “Rocky Top,” about her young search for love, preceded a medley covering Don Mclean’s “American Pie” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” before transitioning into The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
“Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” were first set highlights for Denver and Linda Ray of Millhall. Longtime Parton fans, they drove several hours for their first live performance.
“The show’s been wonderful so far,” Denver Ray said at intermission.
When Parton emerged after set-break, her outfit had changed — now a gleaming white jumpsuit — but her energy had not.
“Baby I’m Burnin’” was an electrified start to her second act before she slowed down and, with a tip of the hat to Norah Jones’ version of her own song, took to the piano for a sultry rendition of “The Grass is Blue.”
“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” saw Parton and company go a capella for a performance that fell somewhere between barbershop quartet and Nashville doo-wop.
Her blue collar anthem, “9 to 5” had the last tinge of country swing in the set before she finished with “I Will Always Love You,” inciting an uproar from the faithful who knew she wrote it well before Whitney Houston made it a pop-sensation.
The encore was a favorite moment for Terry Martin of Tunkhannock, who said Parton inspires her and always has.
The living legend talked about the turbulent state of world and politics before suggesting that more love, kindness and prayer are needed most by all and delivering a soulful “Hello God.”
“I think she was telling us all to wise up,” Martin said.
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts