One of twelve children from an impoverished childhood in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, Dolly Parton would become an enduring voice, a gifted songwriter, and an iconic vision of country culture. Rooted in traditional country but just as enamored with pop, folk, and honky-tonk, she would pull off one of the most successful crossovers ever. Discovered when she was 12, while performing on Knoxville television, she was quickly signed and soon performing on the Grand Old Opry. The combination of a clear, accurate voice that could be tremulous with passion while exuding a childlike tenderness, the ability to craft emotionally engaging songs and her sheer drive and determination would culminate into dozens of albums and a string of chart topping singles, eventually earning her seven Grammy Awards.
In 1977, Dolly Parton was still in the process of becoming a household name. With a number of country hits and a moderately successful television variety show behind her, she was making the transition to world-class performer and her chart-topping hit single, "Here You Go Again," released that year, would begin taking her where she wanted to go. Recorded for the popular Live At The Bottom Line radio concert series, this 1977 recording captures a truly pivotal moment in Parton's career. This three-night run at the intimate Bottom Line would mark Parton's first ever concerts in New York City. Now working with a pop/rock savvy band, Gypsy Fever, Parton was consciously breaking through the barriers of the country music industry on her own terms, paving the way for countless others to follow.
By the time this performance was recorded on the final night of her New York City debut, this show had become the hottest ticket in town and the Bottom Line was deluged with celebrity ticket requests, including from other iconic songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, who both attended this show. Despite the high profile pressure, Parton was extremely comfortable with her audience and any apprehension she had coming into the Big Apple was long gone. Speaking as if she was performing to family and friends in her own living room, Parton tells the audience about everything—who inspired each song; the fact that she went that afternoon to friend Lily Tomlin's one-woman Broadway show; and that she took the time to buy new shoes while in Manhattan. "They told me people in New York City don't like country music," Parton exclaims early on in the show, "and you people LOVE country, dontcha?" From the very moment Dolly hits the Bottom Line stage, her undeniable magnetism propels her forward, but her music is the real selling point to this show.
The set begins with Dolly's band, Gypsy Lights, tearing into a country/pop hybrid arrangement of the Jackie Wilson classic, "Higher & Higher," (which had been a Top 10 hit just the year before for Rita Coolidge). Dolly initially struts around backstage as the band builds up to her cue, at which point she leaps onto the stage in her hot pink sparkling jumpsuit, five inch heels and mountainous teased blond wig, giving her tiny five foot frame plenty of visual impact before taking "Higher and Higher" a whole lot higher. She then swings directly into "All I Can Do," and begins the process of personally engaging the entire room. One of the early highlights is next with the haunting flavor of "Jolene," her plea to another woman to stop stealing her man, arguably one of the greatest songs she ever wrote. She introduces the song with self-effacing comedic flare, stating, "This is about a woman who tried to steal my man. She pulled my wig off and almost beat me to death with it. I fought that woman like a wildcat. I had another wig, but I didn't want another man."
The audience loves her and Dolly continues delighting them with the newly-written-yet-to-be-recorded "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," performed solo acoustic with Gypsy Fever adding light vocal harmony. This song wouldn't turn up until her "Heartbreak Express album in 1982, making it a surprising and welcome addition to this 1977 recording. The ever-popular "Apple Jack," featuring Dolly on banjo, and two of her most beloved autobiographical songs follow, with "My Tennessee Mountain Home" and "Coat Of Many Colors." Written about the poverty of her childhood, "Coat Of Many Colors" is Parton at her most emotionally engaging and its no wonder that she has declared it her favorite of all the songs she's ever written.
Thoroughly in the moment, Dolly next delivers "Light of a Clear Blue Morning," her declaration of artistic independence and the song that kicks off her latest album release, New Harvest... First Gathering. Opening with a piano intro of folk-like simplicity, she begins singing very low key, which adds dynamic contrast when she and her band cut loose on the chorus. This is a perfect example of Parton expanding her musical horizons without abandoning her country roots. This was a considerable gamble and she is well aware of it, as one of her catchphrases, "I don't want to leave country. I want to take country with me!" turns up in many an interview at the time.
Next up is the most commercially successful song Dolly ever wrote, "I Will Always Love You." She wrote "I Will Always Love You," for her one-time partner and mentor, Porter Wagoner, when they were severing their partnership back in 1973. Released the following year as the follow-up single to "Jolene," the song hit number one on the country charts, but had limited success beyond the country market. Here listeners can enjoy the song as Parton intended it to be, a bittersweet and poignant ode to an ex-lover, delivered with her distinctive twang and free of the bombastic excess applied to the arrangement Whitney Houston recorded for The Bodyguard soundtrack. Houston's version, recorded nearly two decades after Parton wrote it, would become the biggest selling single by a female artist of all time.
With the exception of the sappy but endearing story song, "Me And Little Andy" and her pop country spiritual, "The Seeker," the remainder of Parton's set emphasizes more great material from her new album, New Harvest... First Gathering. Included are memorable performances of "Getting In My Way," "How Does It Feel," "Holding On To You," and she closes the set with a lovely reading of "You Are" that includes a spoken word piece, "I Wish You Sweet Love," turning it into a heartfelt dedication to her audience. Following a standing ovation and an audience clamoring for an encore, she returns to the stage for "Love Is Like A Butterfly," the theme song from her syndicated musical variety show the previous year.
Dolly Parton's 1977 album, New Harvest... First Gathering gave her music a new aural depth without attempting to disguise her country touch. This run of Bottom Line concerts would take this new approach to the stage and to an entirely new audience, becoming monumentally important steps in her career. This three night engagement at the legendary music room was essentially Parton's New York City coming out party and even those who are not necessarily country fans can appreciate this show for its pure entertainment appeal and Dolly's undeniable charisma.