Few musicians embrace the yin-yang interplay of artist and performer as wholeheartedly as Dolly Parton did Sunday night at the Greek Theatre. Having spent most of the last decade in a rewarding return to her Smoky Mountain bluegrass roots with a series of indie-label releases, she's now picking up where she left off in the '80s following her pop-country crossover successes.
Much about Sunday's show was as over-the-top as anything Cher or Bette Midler might venture in Las Vegas: outsized production numbers of her signature hits, a powerhouse eight-man band plus three backup singers, lots of "Hee Haw"-level humor and rhinestones on pretty much everything.
It was all to the delight of an impressively eclectic audience encompassing old-timer country fans, a significant contingent of gay men and a smattering of kids who know this Country Music Hall of Famer only as Aunt Dolly, Miley Cyrus' godmother on "Hannah Montana."
She addressed and touched them all during a generous two-and-a-half-hour set, obviously reveling at reconnecting with the masses in a really big show highlighting the pop-country songs from her latest album, "Backwoods Barbie."
Her strongest performances, however, were the simplest -- Parton's stripped-down, spine-tingling rendition of "Little Sparrow" was the emotional centerpiece of the evening's second half. She gave most of her band a break, accompanied only by Richie Owens, who provided some positively chilling dobro work, and singers Vicki Hampton and Jennifer O'Brien.
It registered with the authority of a centuries-old folk song, a warning to young women about the perfidies almost certainly awaiting them in the fields of romance. As a singer, Parton has provided the blueprint for such musical descendants as Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack, Iris DeMent and many others, and here she masterfully sculpted the twists and turns of her Celtic-cum-Appalachian tale.
Then, as if to say "We've shown you what's possible, now here's what's necessary," she wrapped up the night with the hand-clapping troika of her pop hits "Here You Come Again," "Islands in the Stream" and "9 to 5," making sure to point out to the audience that the latter is now a stage musical that arrives next month at the Ahmanson Theatre.
She's always been a smart businesswoman, and she's also been a symbol of female empowerment in a corner of the music industry not known for its equanimity between the sexes. That's resulted in songs such as the recent single "Better Get to Livin'," whose bumper sticker-like refrain makes her sound like a country Oprah.
Understatement proved far more effective on "The Grass Is Blue," her ode to willing self-deception in the face of heartbreak. She sang it from the piano, giving it a fairly sparse treatment that she said was inspired by Norah Jones' version from the "Just Because I'm a Woman" tribute album five years ago.
That made it harder to endure the Whitney Houston-esque blowout arrangement for her romantic ballad "I Will Always Love You" during the first encore. How much more deeply it would register with her own simple acoustic guitar behind it.
The saving grace of all the stage shtick is the autobiographical banter between songs. When she speaks of her upbringing in eastern Tennessee, there's a purity of intention that counterbalances all the wisecracks about her bust size, lifelong fondness for tacky couture and topical references to the Britneys and Lindsays of today's world. And the ease with which she turns from guitar to banjo to dulcimer to autoharp to piano -- even if they were all painted white and bedecked with rhinestones to match her outfit -- reinforces the rural cred that underscores everything she does.