Last week I went to the Dolly Parton concert. The lights dimmed, the huge crowd hushed, the backdrop lit up like a sunset and there in the middle, was a tiny silhouette, immediately recognisable – the nipped in waist, the curves and the really big hair – Dolly! Then.......the voice. It rang out like a clear bell, resonating around the arena. It was like a wave that hit me, a ray of sunshine that melted the heaviness in my heart. One note. And I wept.
This has been a recent phenomenon. These days, Dolly Parton’s voice never fails to move me to tears. I watch old clips of her singing wholesome duets with Porter Wagoner and cry and cry. I watch the old Dolly who still had dimples, singing about her Mama making her a coat from the rags and I weep buckets. While I watched Dolly perform, and since then, I’ve been reflecting on just why it is this tiny, tacky songstress has such a power over me.
I used to sing in a country duo and loved it. When my Mum was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, I knew I couldn’t sing anymore. To sing is to take a deep breath. To sing is to open the chest, expand the heart. To sing is to express vulnerability and emotion. To sing is to reach out to the audience and share something intrinsic to you – your voice. There was no way I could take a deep breath and open my chest like that when so much was weighing on me. My mother died in April and I still can’t sing. Not even around the house. Nor do I want to. It doesn't worry me - I have no desire to sing. For me, grief is mute. Since the funeral I’ve hardly had any contact with my seven siblings – some not at all. And it’s not that we were not close or connected before – we were. And it isn’t that mum was the conduit for our relationships as siblings. It’s more like she was the string on a necklace and we were the beads. The string has broken and we’re all falling, landing on the floor and rolling away in different directions. In our own spin.
I have no cathartic desire to talk about my grief with them or anyone - or to even think about it terms of language. It is a sound unutterably awful. With three little kids at home with me and two older ones at school and a partner I am hardly ever still or ever alone and my tears seem to wait in the wings for quiet moments to slip out and perform. Not often.
And then there’s Dolly. It’s so strange that she cracks this heavy stone-like heart and lets a little sadness flow. I know it’s strange. Strange and kind of hilarious! Part of it is the songs. Those old time bluegrass songs or the old fashioned country songs remind me of a time in my own family when we lived in Beechworth through the 1970’s. We were a big family with not much money. We didn’t have phone and our car broke down all the time. Mum worked hard and cooked, cleaned and had babies and made us just about everything from toys to undies. Dad was a teacher who would give anyone the shirt off his back and actually sometimes did. We loved music and singing together and Dad would buy us instruments and tell us to teach ourselves to play. My Grandma once gave him money to buy us all a pair of shoes each and he came home with a Pianola! So my tears are in part for another time that seemed brief for me, as my Dad died when I was five and we had just moved towns and it all seems like a dim lost memory of a dream. Those happy hillbilly days before grief was a filter over the lens through which we saw the world.
I know that Dolly is tacky. Yes, there are tassels, spangles and razzle dazzle. She “never leaves a rhinestone unturned,” she quipped at the concert as she sat down to a pink sparkle encrusted piano. In part, her look is understandable in the context of the Nashville scene through the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. But then Dolly has pushed it even further with her plastic surgery and that’s not about context or culture, that’s about her.
Dolly’s persona shows her to be a control freak. I see something of her being trapped in her persona. She sang about her sacrifices, “I said I’d be rich at any cost, said I’d win no matter what I lost” and you get a sense of her steely resolve to be famous and of her ambition. Yet she doesn’t say what she lost or who or what the cost was for her fame. And anytime the sentiment gets sad or too close to the bone, she diverts the crowd with a joke and a toe tapping number. She shakes those tassels and lets the rhinestones catch the light and blind us a little.
But it is her voice that is like a fishing hook that catches in my sea of emotion. Her voice is as natural as a bubbling brook that flows from a trickle to a waterfall, from quiet to soft and back again. It is completely unaffected, unforced and pure. She simply opens her mouth and out it comes – no trick of the light, no smoke and mirrors. Just out it pours, ringing true. She is an amazing singer with a strong smooth voice and a huge range that she works with effortlessly. To have that natural sound pouring forth from a body so fake, fries my brain a little. That she is at once so fake and so true. So protected and so vulnerable. So hidden and so exposed. She’s a walking paradox.
What if Dolly didn’t have her persona? What if she was a little old lady with grey hair, sitting and singing and playing the dulcimer? What if she dressed in jeans and fancy cowgirl shirt? Not a wig or sequin in sight? The voice would still be beautiful and graceful, soaring through the range of notes like a bird flying through her mountain home. But would it be as powerful? As compelling? Dolly at once invites us in and pushes us away. She shares her down to earth humour and self deprecating quips a plenty. She talks of her upbringing and her parents. But she never really talks about herself. She seems natural and friendly but it’s all scripted and rehearsed. She is a good actress -“Steel Magnolias” anyone?! Any person that needs that sort of mask and costume is surely more vulnerable than anyone else? There is a frailty to that little body weighed down with wigs, boobs and tassels.
For that little sculpted silhouette of plastic and fake hair to open up, take a deep breath and share her songs in that pure voice, hits me like a force field. That she can share her voice when she needs such props and buffeting seems to me to be a huge generosity. It reminds me that we all have a core that has to be heard. We all have vulnerability. We all suffer grief and joys and carry on. And that even I will learn to have the generosity of spirit to sing again one day. In looking like such a freak and singing with such truth and beauty Dolly shows us humanity.
So you can probably imagine how the concert was for me. Yes – I even cried in “9 to 5”!