Dolly Parton, clad in a form-fitting pantsuit adorned with gold sequins, celebrated 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night (Oct. 12) with two sold-out performances at the revered Nashville venue.
Ahead of her two 30-minute sets, artists on the bill — including Lady Antebellum, Toby Keith and Candi Carpenter, among others — honored the country legend by covering her songs.
Before Parton stepped into the Opry’s historic wooden circle, she spoke with Billboard and other media outlets about her six-decades performing there as well as the early days she spent dreaming of being invited to the famed stage. While Parton was celebrating 50 years as an Opry member, she was quick to let everyone know she had actually been performing on the radio show for 60 years as her uncle Bill frequently drove her to the Grand Ole Opry from their home in East Tennessee. She was 13 when she first performed on the show, where Johnny Cash introduced her.
“That was always my dream and my daddy loved the Grand Ole Opry, so we’d listen to it back home [with] me dreaming of being on it,” she recalled. “The night that I actually became a member 50 years ago was one of the highlights of my whole life because it was a true dream of mine… You never know what's going to happen to you in your life. You never know if your dreams will come true. And if they do, you wonder how people will remember you when you're older. I'm older and I'm seeing how people remember me and that makes me feel very humble and I'm just very honored that I'm still around.”
Throughout the press conference as well as her concerts, Parton marveled at her 50 years as an Opry member while bestowing her wisdom and humor on those in attendance. “I have been so fortunate to see so many of my dreams come true and I don't take any of it for granted,” she told Billboard. “As I often say, I count my blessings a lot more than I count my money.”
“I have so many memories, even as a child, watching the people backstage and standing out there on that stage where all the great people stood, thinking maybe someday I can be part of it,” she added. “Now that I've been fortunate enough to see that dream come true, I wonder if some little kid might be saying, ‘I bet Dolly Parton stood right here’ when I used to think, ‘I’m standing where Kitty Wells stood.’ So that’s what makes you thankful, that’s what makes you grateful. It’s really a humbling experience.”
When asked how she decided on the songs to perform during her set, Parton joked that she’ll be “doing the ones that people would kill me if I didn’t sing.” Those songs included “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “9 to 5,” “Here You Come Again” and “I Will Always Love You,” as well as early hit “Joshua,” the reflective “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and Porter Wagoner’s “Carroll County Accident” with revered banjo player Buck Trent.
“I’ve been writing songs since I was a little ole bitty thing,” she told the audience. “We didn’t have television and we didn’t get to go to the movies, so I’d write stories and paint pictures and then I’d sing them for my whole family, and we felt like we were going to the movies. Some of them are true, some of them are false and some of them are based on a thread of truth.”
While much of the evening had the singer reminiscing about the past songs she wrote, Parton’s humor was also showcased throughout her set. At one point a man in the crowd screamed, “I love you, Dolly!” Her response? “I told you to wait in the truck.” Minutes later her bedazzled dulcimer was brought out on stage for her to play (“I never leave a rhinestone unturned”), and as she sat down on a stool she explained why she chose a pantsuit over a beaded gown. “I didn’t want to wear a dress and sit down on the stool and show the box office,” she quipped. Throughout it all, her gratitude shined through.
“I have so many people to thank and some of those people are the fans who have stood by me all these years. I moved here in 1964 and became a member of the Opry a few years later. Of course, it has been a wonderful life for me, and this song sums up how I feel about you. Thank you so much and I will always love you,” she said before closing the show with the poignant “I Will Always Love You” to a standing ovation.
Parton’s two performances on Saturday evening were filmed as part of an upcoming Nov. 26 television special on NBC titled Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry. The 73-year-old shows no sign of slowing down, with several other film and television projects on the horizon as well as numerous collaborations and co-hosting duties on the upcoming CMA Awards in November. She ended the press conference promising to provide more hope to the world with her future music.
“This world is just so dark and ugly and awful… so I'm going to make it my business to try to do songs that are more uplifting, not all Christian-based songs, but songs about better things. Do better, and have a little more love, a little more light and don’t be so dark and dirty,” she conceded.