Dolly Parton described the experience as only she could.
“It’s sort of like watching porn,” she said of having her songs performed by the all-star cast of admirers at Friday night’s annual MusiCares Person of the Year event. “You’re not personally involved, but you still get off on it.”
The first country artist to receive the Recording Academy’s highest philanthropic prize, Parton was celebrated at the Los Angeles Convention Center with a tribute concert featuring Pink, Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Miley Cyrus, Shawn Mendes, Garth Brooks, Norah Jones and Don Henley, among others.
And though the pre-Grammy benefit gala was as snazzy as usual — academy chief Neil Portnow said it raised more than $6.7 million for MusiCares’ various assistance programs — Parton brought a bawdy, down-home quality to her acceptance speech that distinguished the evening from recent salutes to Lionel Richie and Fleetwood Mac.
“I truly can feel the love in this house tonight,” she said. “Either that or my telephone’s on vibrate.”
Introduced by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, with whom she teamed in 1987 to make the “Trio” album, Parton, 73, used her address to reminisce about her “wonderful journey” from “the hills of East Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills.”
She also acknowledged the conversation about female representation in the music industry.
“People say to me, ‘Wasn’t it a man’s world back when you got in the business?’ I say, ‘It sure was — and, honey, I had a ball.’
“I have actually worked with so many wonderful men, and I’ve never met a man that I didn’t like,” she went on. “And I’ve never met a man whose ass I couldn’t kick if he didn’t treat me with the right respect.” She laughed.
“I also still have that pistol in my purse, and I can still change a rooster into a hen with one shot.”
The night’s best performances channeled Parton’s warmth and wit, as in Mavis Staples’ soulful take on “Not Enough” and a boisterous rendition of “Here You Come Again” by Perry and Musgraves, which seemed to hold together mainly through good cheer.
Chris Stapleton offered up a surprisingly funky “9 to 5,” while Brandi Carlile and Willie Nelson teamed up to do “Everything Is Beautiful (in Its Own Way).”
Several performers went a more refined route. With his wife, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks sang a lovely and intimate “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” which Parton herself revived for a recent duet with Kesha. (Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, co-wrote the tune in the late ’70s.)
And Yolanda Adams was typically elegant in “I Will Always Love You,” which she performed as something of a cross between Parton’s original and Whitney Houston’s indelible cover.
Henley and Vince Gill were a bit stiff in “Eagle When She Flies,” as was Pink, whose “Jolene” needed more desperation.
Backed by Mark Ronson on guitar, Cyrus and Mendes harmonized well in “Islands in the Stream,” though Mendes looked like he’d never heard the song before in his life. (Fortunately for him, a giant prompter at the back of the room provided the lyrics.)
After her speech, Parton closed the show with “Coat of Many Colors” with accompaniment from Linda Perry, with whom Parton made the soundtrack to last year’s “Dumplin’.”
The song, one of Parton’s most well known, recalls a childhood defined by material poverty and spiritual wealth — memories she also embraced in her speech after telling the crowd, “I have been in music for a long time, but it has been in me a lot longer.”
“I used to stand out on the porch back of my old Tennessee mountain home,” she said, “and put a tobacco stick down in the crack in the floor, put a tin can on top of it and pretend like I was singing on the Grand Ole Opry.”