Parton Brings Her Charm, Rags-to-Riches Story on New Tour

BY Mike Melia  August 2, 2011 at 1:18 PM EDT

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Dolly Parton performs at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia. Photos by MIke Melia/PBS NewsHour.

Dolly Parton is famous for being many things: movie star, business mogul, master musician, queen of country. They were all on display Sunday at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, where she showed off her skills on the guitar, banjo, dulcimer, recorder and even saxophone with ease, not to mention her best and most famous instrument: that singular voice which vaulted her to fame more than 50 years ago.

The sold-out concert was one stop in her “Better Day” tour, which Parton is using to promote her latest (and 41st) studio album and to bring attention to her reading program, Imagination Library.

In 1996, Parton started Imagination Library in her home county in east Tennessee, delivering a book every month to children age 5 and younger. Today, it’s reached 1,300 communities in three countries and given away nearly 40 million books. The first book that a child receives is “The Little Engine That Could,” because it’s Parton’s favorite and captures the spirit of her rags-to-riches rise.

On Sunday night, Parton, 65, spoke about how her father inspired her to reach out to children. Although he never went to college, Parton credited him for her business savvy and supporting her own education to make a better life. She performed her song, ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home,’ and then told the crowd about her humble upbringing in the Smokey Mountains.

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She was one of 12 children, six boys and six girls, living in a house with no indoor plumbing or electricity. She said they had running water, though, joking, “We ran and got it.” With such a big family, her mother always had “one on her and one in her.” Parton described her mother’s big personality how how it passed down to her.

That personality on display throughout the show, even from the get-go when she said her trademark line, “It costs a lot to look this cheap.” She then told a stage hand not to pull her hair off. But she went back again and again to her life story and how hard economic hardship can be overcome. She performed what she described as her favorite song, ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ which tells the story of a patchwork coat that her mother made her out of rags.

The rest of the show was a mix of some of Parton’s classics, including ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ bluegrass medleys, and a few covers — the Beatles’ “Help,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”

She also surprised the crowd by busting into a short rap about working with Queen Latiffa in an upcoming movie, “Joyful Noise.” Even in rap she stuck with her sense of humor, remarking on her famous figure: “I don’t hip and I don’t hop/ I’d black both eyes with this big top.”