Dolly Parton came to SXSW, rhinestoned the blockchain and gave Austin an eternal memory
If we must suffer under capitalism, at least we can put rhinestones on it.
What a strange astral alignment Friday in the Live Music Capital of the World, when Dolly Parton made her South by Southwest debut as the creamy filling of a night-long blockchain commercial. They say God always has a plan — a little girl from Appalachia certainly would.
If a history-making appearance from the bottle-blonde boss of country music had to come in the year SXSW kept every token in sight non-fungible, then so be it. She took the trendy, and she made it eternal.
Ostensibly, Dolly arrived in town to gin up excitement for “Run, Rose, Run,” a new concept album released in tandem with her book of the same name, co-written by James Patterson.
This “Welcome to the Dollyverse” experience was presented by Blockchain Creative Labs, and not merely presented in a logo-on-the-flyer way. You could snag NFTs from the event, including a free illustration of roses or a copy of Dolly’s new album, “Run Rose Run.” Viewers at home could livestream the performance on the Dollyverse, an “audience centric Web3 experience.”
(Bruh, I write about music. Look those things up, and let me know what you find out.)
Before moderating a conversation between the co-authors of "Run, Rose, Run," Austin actress Connie Britton came out on stage. “Blockchain!” she shouted, elongating at least one vowel. It was like Oprah had tucked herself behind those perfect golden tresses and, missing the thrill of giving out free cars, directed Britton's actions “Ratatouille”-style.
In this marriage of art and commerce, commerce was head of the household.
Then Dolly came out in spangled red chaps and a picnic table gingham shirt, and the medicine went down. Patterson originally approached Dolly about writing the book, they told the audience, and they made the deal themselves, without an agent or a lawyer in sight.
Dolly said she doesn’t write with people too much. If you'd written a song that could finance a space station, like “I Will Always Love You,” you’d probably be confident in your own hand. Referencing her Kenny Rogers collab “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” though, she said that Patterson was a new old friend. They both have a warped sense of humor, she added, which makes us desperate for one night and three shots of rye with her.
“She’d scarier than you think,” Patterson said. He added later: “Dolly is the smartest person I’ve ever worked with.”
Dolly told ACL Live that she loves Austin, loves visiting Willie Nelson’s studio, loves coming here for movies and “Austin City Limits.” SXSW somehow never came up on her schedule. There’s a first time for everything, even for the woman who’s made more firsts than a gold medal factory.
Dolly noticed a sign in the packed house that read, “What would Dolly do?” We’ve all wondered. She answered: “Whatever it takes to keep you loyal and keep you happy.”
There’s a lot of bad in the world, Dolly said, so she tries to put some good out whenever she can. Can she get an amen? The superstar is notoriously averse to talking about politics or current affairs, but she offered direct support to “our friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters in Ukraine.”
The audience at ACL Live, it must be mentioned, was embarrassing to this entire city. Milling NFT miners or SXSW casuals chattered away the entire time Parton, Patterson and Britton were onstage, creating a dull roar that seemed to hinder the speakers’ ability to hear themselves. The disrespect? Far too much.
“I’ll be back in 15 minutes if anyone needs to go pee,” Dolly said on her way to the wings, conversation concluded.
Seems like most people got rid of their piss-poor attitudes in time for the main event. Dolly came back, still on-theme in scarlet fringe, capris and glitter heels straight from the Dorothy Gale Collection. White picket fences laced with roses lined the stage. Her band got in on the floral motif, in black Western-style shirts embroidered with roses.
Branding. It's why she's Dolly Parton, and no one else is.
The consummate entertainer, Dolly top-loaded the set with three songs from “Run, Rose, Run”: the one-third-titular “Run,” “Woman Up (and Take It Like a Man)” and “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans.” Solid latter-day tunes all, with folksy rhymes like “mess of trouble trapped beneath the trash and rubble.”
Some choo-choo-train choreo on “Run” left Dolly admittedly out of breath (this is why Cher does not move below the waist in live shows these days). She talked about the idea to turn a thriller novel into a new music project: “I need a country album out, anyhow.”
On “Woman Up,” she stuck her hand on her hip and sang lyrics that surely came from the heart. “I’ll be fightin’ till I’m six feet underground,” goes the Nashville rock strutter. Poignant stuff. Then she introed “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans,” slid under her guitar strap and quipped, “Is my hair still on?”
OK. Rose ran, ran. Time for the life-changing, heaven-glancing, SXSW-making magic. The catalog.
Dolly leaned back into her metaphorical recliner and went into storyteller mode. When she first moved to Nashville, she left two boyfriends back home and wasn’t looking for love. Then she went to the laundromat and Carl Dean sent her life into a decades-long spin cycle.
“Me, like a hillbilly, I took him home,” she said to howls.
You know the next story. Carl went to the bank a little too much, and he found some flaming locks of auburn hair. Ivory skin and eyes of emerald green, too. A guitar strummed a familiar strum, and it unlocked memories for everyone in the room.
“She’s made me a lot of money,” Dolly said of the would-be temptress. Phones met air. Dolly did the damn thing, her voice breathy on immortal lyrics like, “He talks about you in his sleep.” Throughout the night, it was a pleasure to witness how the star has adapted her vocals over the years, making time-honored standards feel new. She’s still got power, and she’s got those high notes, but time colors all.
Dolly took us back home to living in the holler, 12 kids in the house and three to a bed, which didn’t always stay dry.
“You’d be surprised how you miss stuff like pee,” Dolly said.
More pee jokes on this evening than I expected. Perhaps this is what blockchain is about.
There could not have been a more stark juxtaposition between that quip and what followed. Dolly’s rendition of “Precious Memories” started with crystalline a cappella. Just Dolly, at center stage, the spot trained on a lady who stamped her passport on the way down from the pearly gates. Then her backup singers came in with harmonies like archangels who caught the next train out. If any jokers in the crowd were still making noise, they stopped.
This was a SXSW moment: an icon in her full power.
When the song finished, she was right back to the laughs, taking a sip from a bottle: “That was real water and not Lone Star beer.”
If you’ve seen Dolly before — I caught her at the Erwin Center a few years back, in the nosebleediest seats they sold — you know she deploys some trusty banter. Someone yells “I love you,” and she replies, “I love you, too, but I thought I told you to stay in the truck.”
She reminisces about home a lot. Sometimes it's funny, like talking about the town trollop after whom she modeled herself. “Don’t you wanna go to Heaven?” her grandfather asked about her appearance. “Sure I do, but do I have to look like hell to get there?” she replied.
Her patterns are classics for a reason. And on Friday, they were tonic.
There’s a lot of money surrounding SXSW, always. The year of blockchain and NFTs, frankly, has felt alienating at times. So, when Dolly told the story of her father, who could neither read nor write, trying to make it in Detroit to support the family, it was jarring in the best way. When she spun the yarn of her mother and that “Coat of Many Colors,” the emotion that usually wells up started to feel like a corrective to a week of artifice that felt at times almost obscene.
Dolly sang “Smoky Mountain Memories,” a pipe and drum behind her. The bass of the drum thudded, thudded, thudded. She sang of poverty, and of dignity.
“It’s a struggle just keeping sight of who you are," the words went, pressing deeper with the drum.
I’d like to think that hypnosis isn’t outside the skillset of the master herself.
“Here You Come Again” came again, and then Comrade Dolly gave us “9 to 5,” which considering the circumstances either felt like a revolutionary anti-capitalist demonstration or a jingle for web decentralization. (OK, so I did read a little bit about blockchain.)
Dolly likes to close things out with “9 to 5,” usually. This was a high holy day, remember, so she sent the people home with “I Will Always Love You.” Do you know that feeling, when you can tell your brain is pulsing with electricity and chemicals and doing its work not quietly but intentionally, reassuring you that yes, you’ll remember this one?
It’s been a long week at SXSW. It’s been a long couple years on earth. And just when words stop making sense there’s Dolly Parton, singing an American hymn in your hometown.
“I’m as old as yesterday," Dolly said on Friday night, "but I’m as new as tomorrow.”