Dolly Parton
Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park

October 2, 2005

Review by Squid

Dolly appeared as part of the 5th Annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a festival that takes place in Golden Gate Park. It's three days, five stages, and sixty bands. And it's totally FREE. (This thanks to philanthropist Warren Hellman, heir of the Hellman aka Best Foods Fortune. ) The line-ups are already fantastically varied: from Earl Scruggs to Emmylou Harris to Split Lip Rayfield to Hazel Dickens. The minute Dolly got added to the roster, however, I'm fairly certain that the draw on this particular day of the festival doubled. Because, damnit, this is San Francisco, and whether you're the most beautiful cross-dresser this side of the Castro or a grizzled roadhouse biker or a squirrely alt-rocker with Jeff Tweedy's home address tattooed on your eyelids, Dolly, as I screamed to my friend while she danced and spilled Jim Beam all over her picnic blanket, "IS UNIVERSAL!".

Now imagine everyone being as excited as I was. And not having to pay to see her. There were soooooo many people. Masses of people pouring in not just from the other four stages, but from opposite ends of the park. As I got closer I realized that many of them weren't even heading for the playing field - some were clustered around her tour buses like this big bobbing clothed amoeba - just to get a glimpse of her.

Or rather, the top of her wig.

Now, I was very lucky. I was a people who knew some people, so I got to head to the reserved "friends and family" section up front. I mean, she was still very far from me, but I could certainly see her. I got there just as she waltzed out in a gorgeous turquoise and rhinestone cocktail dress. Hair piled to heaven, her chest in a different zipcode. She had a white rhinestone dulcimer. And the '57 Chevy Bel Air" Guitar! And sang? "9 to 5"! It was schmaltzy yet so genuine that everyone was singing along because you simply cannot maintain any sort of indie snark in the face of such heartfelt earnestness.

By now, the crowd behind me had swollen up past the roadside barriers. The hill to the right of the stage, totally covered over with trees, was also crammed with people who had decided that just hearing her was enough. When that hit maximum density, newcomers started climbing trees. She launched into "Jolene" and I watched people literally scream and clutch their heads. Jolene! That song that the kids think Jack White wrote! And then...30 seconds in, the front of house mix went out. She smiled and joked it off and kept going with: "Crimson and Clover"! Jesus Christ! Of course! And "Me and Bobby McGee"! This even though the technical mishap had cost not only the sound, but her entire barrage of bejewled instruments. She never complained once, continuing with "I Will Always Love You", (which she wrote, though people always think of Whitney Houston), complete with a spoken breakdown in the middle that had the ladies weeping into their chardonnay. In between songs, she charmed people with a mix of canned patter from her stage shows and cute little one-liners like, "Hooooeeee! I don't think that's Crimson and Clover y'all are smoking over there, is it?"

About halfway thru she got to the bluegrass I'd been waiting for with "Coat of Many Colors" and "Little Sparrow". I can appreciate the "glitzy" Dolly, but when she sings traditional songs, she just rips my heart out. (This is me recommending Trio if you don't have it. Go ahead and try to get thru "Rosewood Casket" without throwing yourself off something.) Her voice at these moments is honestly a miracle, like a Coltrane solo, something that makes you forget to breathe. It's the reason you keep caring about music, because every now and then, you are affected beyond your control. Dolly brought all of the cynics out of the woodwork. Every club owner, booker, and band in town was at this show. They brought their lawnchairs and their kids and most importantly, their sense of awe and admiration for the tiny little woman with the sassiest personality this side of the Smoky Mountains.