Long before Lady Gaga was telling us to love ourselves, there was an even blonder, sparklier superstar eager to pull America into a group hug. Dolly Parton, of course.
She spent more than two hours onstage at a sold-out Wolf Trap on Sunday, radiating that adorable, uber-inclusive sunshine, singing both the classics and fresh tunes from her charming new album, “Better Day.”
At 65, Parton might be a country deity on par with Cash, Jennings and Jones, but her rallying warmth felt more in step with the recent love-thyself affirmations of Gaga, Ke$ha and Katy Perry. As she trilled her new single, “Together You and I,” a video looped on the screen behind her showing folks of different stripes coming together and holding hands. There were wiggy drag queens and mohawked punks. There were grease-faced mechanics and baby-faced teens. There were young moms, old moms and medium-age moms, all lined up like paper dolls.
It would have felt tacky if it hadn’t rung so true. Sunday’s crowd was as diverse as you could expect to see at a country music concert. And that’s because Parton has always spoken the same genre-transcending language as the Beatles and Stevie Wonder: joyfulness. Even the sad songs — among them, a tender rendition of “Coat of Many Colors,” which Parton called her fave — had a little serotonin sprinkled into the batter.
With one of the banter-heavy evening’s biggest punch lines, Parton explained why she always looks so happy: “That’s Botox!”
So when she looked like she was occasionally lip-syncing up there, was that Botox, too? Probably not. Parton appeared to fake her way through a few portions of the set — including a big, fat saxophone solo from the teeny, tiny horn — but her enthusiasm always felt genuine.
While introducing her 1974 hit “Jolene,” she even talked a little trash about the infamous redhead who once tried to steal her husband. “She was right pretty,” Parton said, but “I saw her not long ago, and she ain’t looking so good now.”
The song was delivered in that trembling vibrato that makes Parton’s voice seem both delicate and immense. “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man,” she trilled, strumming away on her sparkling, diamond-dappled guitar.
All of the other instruments in her collection were equally blingy. She plucked at a gold-flaked banjo on “Rocky Top,” and later broke out a glittery grand piano, a sparkly Autoharp and a bedazzled dulcimer — all of which matched the dress she wore during her first set, an azalea frock glistening in sequin dew.
A glitzy instrument for every song, a song for every demographic. Boomers were treated to lively covers of the Beatles’ “Help” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” while even the most cynical Gen-Xer couldn’t have denied Parton’s clever recycling of Collective Soul’s dim alterna-rock hit “Shine.”
Even with her rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Hannah Montana” theme song, “The Best of Both Worlds,” her covers had such poise, she made it feel like she wrote them.
“We got bugs bigger than a little sparrow here tonight,” she joked, introducing the tune as gargantuan moths darted around her golden coif. She launched into the first verse a cappella and was soon joined by three backup singers and an army of insects chirping and buzzing in the surrounding wood.
It was gorgeous. And real.