Dolly Parton’s insurgency into the television landscape began in 2015 with the NBC holiday movie “A Coat of Many Colors,” based on the lyrics to Parton’s song of the same name and amounted to a biopic of the singer’s poverty-stricken rural childhood in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a hit (no surprise) and launched other projects that Parton produced, including the current Netflix series “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” and a concert special on NBC that honors her half-century association with Nashville music institution the Grand Ole Opry.
These visual companions to Parton’s hugely successful discography — she has written 3,000 songs, among them “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene” and the movie theme “9 to 5” — have added a dimension to her legend as a recording industry powerhouse. When many of her colleagues are retiring, embracing their eternal reward or losing their voices, Parton remains indefatigable and, from the young faces in the audiences, seems to have attracted a sizable young audience.
British producer Justin Gorman was working on a documentary about the singer when the prospect of filming her concert at the new Grand Ole Opry came up. The venue is on the outskirts of Nashville and seats 4,500. All of those seats are filled in “Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry,” a concert that combines performances of Parton’s hits by herself and musical guests such as Dierks Bentley (“Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”), Emmylou Harris (“To Daddy”) and Lady Antebellum (“Islands in the Stream”). On one number, Parton displays her bawdy sense of humor, saying she wore pants instead of a dress because she would need to cross her legs to play the dulcimer. “I didn’t want to show you the Opry box office,” she says.
“We had 13 cameras on the event,” Gorman says. “There are couples singing to each other. That’s why you realize Dolly is Dolly. Her writing has the ability to touch everyone. The licks of the song. The entry points. No matter who you are, you can find a Dolly that works for you.”
Gorman added a narrative component of Parton, convincing Parton to talk about her life on stage at the original Opry, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. “I said, ‘We have to do the whole thing on camera when the theater is empty. It’s your home, and you tell us your story. It make the people at home feel like they’re included, too.”
Parton tells viewers how she learned to play the banjo and even offers an a capella rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The performances and narration are interspersed with archival footage of Parton at various stages in her career, talking about her first single, “Dumb Blonde” and chatting in the makeup room while waiting to go onstage. “She said, ‘I want to see this and this,’ and she pointed us in the right direction,” Gorman says. “The whole team of Dollywood has her archives. If we’d come in cold …”
Parton performed two concerts for the special. “I treated the first one as a dress rehearsal, but went all in on the second show,” Gorman says. There was a fear at one point that her voice was going, but Dolly took a rest between sets and notified her producer, “My voice is back. We’re good to go.”