By the time Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, fresh from her much-buzzed-about CBS Sunday Morning profile, emerged to cheers at the 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year celebration, it was crystal-clear that authenticity, generosity and caring define Dolly Parton. With extensive references throughout the evening to her charity work (Imagination Library, My People Foundation), business acumen (Dollywood, Sand Dollar Productions) and enduring mark on pop culture (Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy, CMA and ACM recognition), the other two-thirds of their all-female supergroup The Trio stressed that, in the end, it’s all about the love of friends, songs and people in need.

Even when a bit of tangled choreography between Recording Academy czar Neil Portnow and Ronstadt saw the crystal award tumble to the ground, Parton beamed, laughed, and said, “Well, nobody got hurt,” in her offhand way. It was Parton’s night to shine, and her sparkle matched her body of work over a half-century in the music business.

While constructing “Grammy Moments” with the usual Grammy favorites is too predictable to conjure magic, Chris Stapleton’s lean turn on “9 to 5” rendered Parton’s plucky theme from the film of the same name into a soulfully Haggard­-esque take on workingman’s blues. Ditto Garth Brooks, who, playing only a spare acoustic guitar and singing harmony on Trisha Yearwood’s beautifully tendered “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You), gave pause to jaded mass. Intimacy works.

A last-minute change from “It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right” to “Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way)” spoke to Parton’s life-affirming worldview; the new choice saw a visibly moved Willie Nelson burning with emotion for his dear friend as he shared their 1982 Top 10 duet with this year’s roots Grammy queen, Brandi Carlile. It was the same ardency that gave the dark-red-dress-wearing Lauren Daigle’s earthy yet churchy read on “The Seeker”—at one point stripped to five a capella voices—its potency.

Parton performed a tender “Coat of Many Colors” with Dumplin’ producer Linda Perry on acoustic guitar, after an acceptance speech that was equal parts bawdy humor, obvious gratitude and a personal declaration of music. But gospel great Yolanda Adams was the night’s standout. Her bravura “I Will Always Love You” left the room thunderstruck, as the Whitney Houston ubiquity-turn became a love song to not just a partner but to God in a way that penetrated the obviously hip crowd. Music—when not manufactured for maximum marketing potential—remains the deadliest weapon of all.

To that end, perfectly fine performances of “unlikely” pairings were just that: perfectly fine. P!nk delivered a too-quick “Jolene,” Norah Jones brought her all-girl group for a noir cocktail/gospel “The Grass Is Blue,” and Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves offered a masterclass in Parton’s duality with “Here You Come Again.” While Musgraves, dressed all in white, played it straight, pure and for the original’s vulnerability, Perry’s larger-than-life camp ’n’ vamp served up the amusement-park aesthetics from the showbizzy side of the Smoky Mountain icon.

The night’s MVP went to hosts Little Big Town, who charmed with extended off-script vamps, including a spontaneous a capella “Those Memories of You” from Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook that swept the room into a haunted heartache. Off the cuff, buoyant, incandescent and willing to verbally arm wrestle over who was Parton’s biggest fan—including a picture of a very young Sweet dressed as Parton one Halloween—their joy over the woman with two Grammy Hall of Fame recordings infected those honoring the first country music Person of the Year.

Miley Cyrus with Shawn Mendes and Mark Ronson’s “Islands in the Stream” didn’t quite ignite, but Billy Ray and Trisha’s oldest child displayed the same combustive positivity that defines her godmother. With a vibrato that’s more Stevie Nicks than Parton, Miley threw herself into the Kenny Rogers duet with abandon, while later addressing Parton’s mark on her own artistic quest with genuine love.

With the story of Elvis’ wanting to cut “I Will Always Love You,” but asking for 50% of the publishing to do it—and Parton saying “NO”—told twice, the night also showed country music’s fairy godmother is no pushover. A strong woman who wrote songs for women coming of age in the post-Gloria Steinem world, she walked it like they talked it and still managed to wear high heels, high hair and a lotta rhinestones doing it.

In her comments, Dolly conceded, “I never met a man I didn’t like, and I’ve also never met a man whose butt I couldn’t kick if it needed it,” before lightening the moment by likening the night to porn. With a quick chuckle, she explained, “You’re not personally involved, but you still get off on it.” Parton mirrored everything MusiCares stands for: large truth and deep humanity, with a generous side of laughter. Last year alone, $6.5 million was given to over 8,000 people—the organization’s most impactful effort ever.

For Parton, honoring the deserving and doing good—including lifting people up with her music—is what it’s all about. “Us hillbillies need MusiCares, too!” she enthused. “We don’t have sex and drugs and rock & roll, but two out of three ain’t bad.”


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