Stepping into the Ryman Auditorium, you can feel the history soaked into every wooden seat and beam. This is where the Grand ‘Ole Opry started, and consequently became the ‘soul of Nashville’ and the most famous stage in country music. Indeed, this is where Dolly Parton was inducted into the ‘Opry back in the ’70s, something she commented on in the press conference before the show, saying that no matter where in the world she plays, she imagines she’s at the Ryman, since it is such a special place for her.
Throughout the concert, you could feel that this was a unique event, with Dolly producing a show more akin to a songwriters showcase, or a musical than a concert, with lengthy talks about her past and how it contributed to the writing of each song she performed. Indeed, instead of opening with a song, she interacted straight with the audience, explaining about the charities she supports at her shows and why they are important. What was especially wonderful about Dolly is the way she is so relaxed onstage, making genuinely funny comments about topics as diverse as region, sexuality, marriage and her body! By the end of the show it was almost like she was just having a personal gossip with the audience, evoking emotions from roaring laughter to stunned silence as she described growing up in the mountains in a family of 12 kids (‘we weren’t catholic or anything, just really horny Baptists!’).
It’s hard to pick highlights of such an incredible and intimate gig, but the a capella version of ‘Little Sparrow’ fusing into ‘If I Had Wings’ had the crowd completely silenced before a huge standing ovation. A personal highlight was also ‘Blue Smoke’, which was particularly impressive given the range of tempos used by the band, adding several layers of texture to what is already a fantastic recent song of Dolly’s.
Likewise, ending the night with a stirring and emotional version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ was simply beautiful, and had the crowd lapping up every moment that they had left with Dolly. Other powerful moments included ‘Coat Of Many Colours’, made particularly touching after a talk about how it was therapeutic for her to write, helping her after bullying, and how a children’s book based on the song is used to help children learn about the effects of bullying. For me ‘Tennessee Mountain Home’ was also very touching, given the emphasis that Dolly put on explaining her life as the concert progressed, with her upbringing in the smokey mountains being an important part of who she is, and so came from a very personal place.
This amazing gig was made all the more special having been played in such an important setting. The small auditorium had a very intimate feel to it, making everyone feel connected personally to Dolly. Despite this though, the audience was very loud in their appreciation at the end of every song, and during Dolly’s jokes, were laughing loudly enough for any outsiders to think that a comedy show was on. This is country music at its very country-est with storytelling, both musically and by spoken word, being of the very highest order. It was also touching to see Dolly having fun teasing her band, which has been with her for over 40 years, and describing them as ‘family’. I’m not going to forget this amazing and unique night, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to attend such an incredible event.