Wait a minute. You didn't know Dolly had a new album? You must have been sick this week with Grammy flu.
By my count, Live from London is Parton's fourth concert album, following A Real Live Dolly (1970), the excellent Heartsongs: Life from Home (1994), and Live and Well (2004); and it's the first one she recorded overseas. Set in London's famous O2 Arena, where she performed two sold-out shows, this record confirms perhaps better than any before that Parton is a bona-fide international treasure.
As expected, Parton appears in a sparkly, low-chested and somewhat tacky costume. This one is turquoise, with silver gems, and it looks a bit like a cocktail version of the famous gown the fairies stitch for Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The outfit, the neckline, the wig, the fingernails, the plastic surgery — all fundamental pieces of the lady's persona, all on full display in the concert DVD. In "Backwoods Barbie", one of her finer newer compositions, Parton insists, "see me as I am / the way I look is just a country girl's idea of glam".
"Backwoods Barbie" is followed by another tune about Parton's schoolgirl sense of "glam" — the classic "Coat of Many Colors", the autobiographical tale of the winter jacket her mother stitched for her when she was a child, out of rags. A concert staple, "Coat of Many Colors" is the only track that appears on all four of Parton's live records. In London, she introduces it with stories about her father, a share-cropper and construction worker, who would take soapy water to the pigeon droppings on her statue in downtown Sevierville, Tenn., and her mother, the kind of woman "who could tell you anything and make it sound good, cook you anything and make it taste good". The tune has always been a heart-wrencher, but the older Parton grows, the more poignancy she invests in her performance, and now it just aches. The way the best country music does.
Of the concert's fifteen tracks, five come from the Backwoods Barbie (2008) album, two from her recent and acclaimed "roots" albums, and eight from her 1970s and 80s RCA heyday. A nearly even split between the old and the new — between the chart-toppers ("9 to 5") and the singles contemporary radio stations ignore ("Shinola"). Interestingly, the new compositions match or even surpass the originality and ambition of the older classics.
Before you "Jolene" fans accuse me of heresy, consider as a case in point this record's stripped-down performance of "Little Sparrow", the title track from her second Sugar Hill record, released in 2001. A cautionary tale about a woman abandoned by an indifferent lover (one of Parton's favorite topics), Parton here performs it acapella — and her lonely voice has never sounded lovelier, or more like a spa-a-a-row. Her voice flutters: "If I were a little sparrow / o'er these mountains I would fly / I would find him, I would find him / look into his lying eyes".
Consider, also, "The Grass Is Blue", for which Parton herself plays (or pretends to play?) the piano. "How much can a heart and a troubled mind take?" she asks. "Where is that fine line before it all breaks? Can one in their sorrow just cross over it and into that realm of insanity's bliss?" Sheer poetry. London offers compelling proof that Parton remains, in her 60s, as tender a songwriter, and as buoyant a performer, as she's ever been.
Duane Gorden, over at Dollymania, reported a few months back that Parton's label initially conceived the album, which is actually a CD/DVD combo (applejack sold separately), as two products. But fortunately, smartly, they decided to combine. Fortunately, I say, because for $14.99 the dual-disc set is a steal, and smartly because the DVD steals the show. Consider the CD an added bonus.
"I wake up with new dreams everyday," Parton confesses in an interview, also showcased on the new set, and to prove her point she lists just a few of the items on her to-do list — a children's television series, an album of children's music, her own line of cosmetics, a new Broadway show about her own life, etc. She may have more albums behind than ahead of her, but Live from London at once pays tribute to the cultural empire Parton has built in five decades under the spotlight and assures us she's not going away, not anytime soon. And thank goodness for that.
Recommended for casual and committed listeners alike.