She wears wigs -- giant, puffed-up blond hairpieces. She lathers her face with enough lipstick, eye shadow and rouge to make her the envy of drag queens everywhere. Her jewelry is large and glittery; her clothing is just as shiny and tightly adheres to her body, which looks as though it were designed by Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Playboy's '60s comic strip Little Annie Fanny. Her stage moves are left over from vaudeville, with hand gestures a six-year old could create and a cornpone sense of humor combined with a just-folks storytelling approach. Until you actually hear Dolly Parton sing, you can be forgiven for thinking of her as a caricature.
She does take some serious left turns into commercial pabulum now and again -- let's face it, that's what she did for most of the '80s -- but Dolly Parton is and has been for more than 30 years one of the richest songwriters and singers in all of American music. Just consider the songs she's written that everybody knows -- "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene," "9 to 5," "I Will Always Love You." Parton walks the tightrope of sentimentality and reaches the goal of emotional truth as much as anybody who's ever tried.
Since the late '90s, Parton has been re-energized by returning to her Tennessee-mountain musical roots. She's not strictly performing bluegrass, but she is using bluegrass instrumentation, albeit with drums added, to gently support her invigorating, supple vocals. She's also been pulling songs from rock -- she's done "Shine" by Collective Soul and "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin -- and making them sound as if they were sung in her church while she was growing up.
A new live album and DVD document 2003's first concert tour in ten years. Parton has never sounded better nor had a stronger collection of songs to sing onstage. Enjoy the caricature, but revel in the fully nuanced artist.