Local Current Blog

‘Dolly is an artist for the ages’: Why Minnesota musicians are paying tribute to Parton

Dolly Parton performs in Westwood, Calif., 2002. (Robert Mora/Getty Images)

It’s been over five decades since Dolly Parton first launched her musical career — and we still can’t get enough of her music. Dolly Parton has been the subject of her own WNYC-produced podcast; her iconic songs have inspired both Twitter memes and an original Netflix series. Now, for one night, over a dozen Minnesotan musicians are gathering in St. Paul to honor Dolly Parton’s legacy and recreate some of her most beloved songs.

This Friday, Jan. 17, local artists are celebrating the music of Dolly Parton in an already sold-out tribute concert at the Turf Club. Performers including HALEY, Katy Vernon, and Kerry Alexander (Bad Bad Hats) will sing Dolly’s songs, backed by local cover band A Little Too Short To Be Stormtroopers, just two days before the country icon’s 74th birthday. The concert will also benefit the Women’s March, which will have representatives at the Turf Club to register voters.

“I think it’s a good way for the Women’s March to reach a new crowd,” said Ann Treacy, who became involved in the Women’s March two years ago and now helps the Minnesota chapter run their social media accounts. Treacy explained that in 2020, the group will not organize a march, and instead, they’re focusing their efforts on encouraging people to vote.

“Our momentum really has to be serious about getting out the vote and getting out information, but I think there has to be an element of fun too,” said Treacy, commenting on the tribute concert. “It’s a fun way to get people more engaged in civic activity.”

Treacy first got the idea for organizing a benefit concert after attending a Shania Twain tribute concert at the Turf Club in August 2019, which featured a similar lineup of local artists including Savannah Smith, Faith Boblett, and Jaedyn James, and which raised money for Planned Parenthood and the Minnesota-based nonprofit Women Winning. After the concert, Treacy began dreaming up a similar event that honored the music of Dolly Parton — but as it turned out, someone else had beaten her to it.

Seth Duin (General B and the Wiz) was performing at the Shania Twain tribute concert, as part of the backing band, A Little Too Short To Be Stormtroopers. The band formed in 2017 as a cover band that held a weekly gig at Minneapolis’ Viking Bar, and they decided to put together the Twain tribute after learning a handful of the country pop star’s songs for a show they played with singer Savannah Cole.

After the success of the Shania Twain tribute, Duin decided to organize another tribute concert, and Dolly seemed like an obvious choice. “She writes music that oddly unifies weirdly different groups of people in our country,” said Duin. “It made total sense.”

Duin also said that for A Little Too Short To Be Stormtroopers (who are all men), deciding to partner with the Women’s March was an easy decision. “As a white cis-gendered male in the 21st century, a lot of us in that position of power, we want to do what we can to be an effective ally in our community,” he said. Soon, he and Treacy soon began recruiting singers to perform. According to Duin, “The response was overwhelming.”

The concert has already sold out, but those who managed to grab a ticket can expect to hear a range of songs from throughout Dolly’s career, from her early folk and country roots to ’80s pop crossover hits. As the music director for the show, Duin let each singer choose how they want to interpret Dolly’s songs, some opting for more faithful versions and others taking liberties with her arrangements, including one performer who is adding a reggae beat to a Dolly classic. Duin says that A Little Too Short To Be Stormtroopers are pulling out all the stops — the band’s instruments will include lap steel, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass, drums, and more.

One of the musicians who will take the stage on Friday night is Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Katy Vernon, who is adding her signature instrument, the ukulele, to two of Dolly’s more “sweet” and “understated” songs. Vernon, who grew up in South London and moved to Minnesota at the age of 21, says that growing up, Dolly seemed more like a “Barbie doll” than an esteemed performer.

Vernon explained that while growing up in the UK, she had limited exposure to country music. “[Dolly] is such an American icon. I think that added to the two-dimensional impression that I had of her,” she said. “She just seemed like Mickey Mouse and apple pie — she just didn’t seem real to me.”

But learning that Dolly was the mastermind behind “I Will Always Love You” (made famous by Whitney Houston on The Bodyguard soundtrack) was a “whiplash” moment for Vernon, who started to see the country icon as an “incredible, prolific songwriter.”

For an artist who has spent so much of her career in the spotlight, Dolly has managed to steer clear of politics, and she declines to call herself feminist. Dolly may not embrace the term for herself, but her music has spoken to the everyday issues that women experience, from workplace harassment to miscairrage and domestic abuse.

While Dolly may not don a pussy hat or pick up a picket sign, Treacy says that part of what makes Dolly such a unique mobilizer is her ability to unite generations. “Dolly is an artist for the ages,” she said. “My kids know Dolly Parton, my mom knows Dolly Parton.” And in fact, both Treacy’s mother and sister will be at the concert. Treacy says her “one disappointment” is that the Turf Club is a 21+ venue.

Vernon says that she doesn’t understand Dolly’s rejection of the term “feminist,” but she admires Dolly’s self-determined attitude and supportive spirit. After spending over 25 years in the music business, Vernon says she feels a bit like a “mother hen” in the Minnesota music scene, and she finds inspiration in Dolly’s ability to empower younger female artists.

“She might not call herself a feminist, but she is absolutely empowering women every time she sings,” said Vernon. “If I could even do a teeny bit of that during my lifetime, I’d feel really proud.”