Dolly Parton is celebrating a half-century of being an official Grand Ole Opry member with “Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry,” a two-hour special that airs tonight on NBC. But if you want to talk about how long she’s really been associated with the Opry, she’s not bashful about noting that you can actually tag another 10 years onto that number.
“A lot of people think this is my 50th year at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s actually been 60, because the first time I got to sing on the Opry, I was 13 years old,” Parton explained at a press event before going into the auditorium to film the new special. “But then the night that I became a member after I was working with ‘The Porter Wagoner Show’ — and got to actually be a member 50 years ago this year — was one of the highlights of my whole life because it was a true dream of mine.”
Taped on Oct. 12 at the Opry House just outside of downtown Nashville, the special honoring Parton’s half-century mark as a member of the hallowed institution features performances by several of country music’s finest including Emmylou Harris, Lady Antebellum, Dierks Bentley, Margo Price and more. Parton closed out the Opry’s pair of shows celebrating her legacy, both of which sold out when tickets went on sale a year prior, with a handful of career-defining hits, including “Jolene,” “9 to 5” and “I Will Always Love You.”
While Parton was officially inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1969 at the Opry’s original home of the Ryman Auditorium, her journey with the Opry dates back to childhood. Parton shared that growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, her father was a loyal listener of the beloved country music-themed show that’s aired on WSM radio since 1925. She recalled memories of her and her uncle Bill Owens making the three-hour drive from her native Sevierville, Tenn. to Nashville to watch the Opry show backstage, Parton dreaming of one day performing on the stage herself.
“We’d come down to Nashville back and forth in an old, beat-up car, sleeping in the backseat, and go to the Grand Ole Opry, wait backstage, looking at all the greats. That was always my dream. My daddy loved the Grand Ole Opry, so we had to listen to it back home, and me dreaming of being on it and I just remember that being special.”
That dream became reality when she made her Opry debut as a teen in 1959, with Jimmy C. Newman giving up his spot one night so she could perform, with Johnny Cash introducing her on stage.
Throughout the anniversary special, artists across generations pay tribute Parton by performing selections from her storied catalogue. Lady Antebellum open the special with Parton’s iconic duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream,” which is one of the first songs they sang together at a karaoke bar in Nashville after forming as a trio in 2006. Harris, who collaborated with Parton and Linda Ronstadt on the 1987 album “Trio,” delivers a haunting acoustic rendition of “To Daddy,” while Price lends her angelic voice to “The Seeker.”
Parton’s own performances shine in between the musical homages, joking backstage that she chose to sing the classics “that people would kill me if I didn’t sing.” Her mere presence brought the packed Opry house to its feet as she made her way to the stage, opening her 30-minute set with the spirited feminist anthem “9 to 5.” Her eight-song set digs deep into her vast music vault, as she performs her first No. 1 single “Joshua” alongside the revered “Coat of Many Colors,” with Parton’s trademark wit on full display in the midst. “It costs a lot to look this cheap. That’s the best joke I have, but it’s the honest truth,” she says, reviving a joke almost as familiar as her greatest hits. She also includes a nod to her mentor Wagoner, who helped bring her into the limelight as his duet partner on “The Porter Wagoner Show” in the 1970s, even inviting his banjo player Buck Trent on stage to help her perform a cover of one of her favorite Wagoner songs, “The Carroll County Accident.”
“I just have so many memories, even as a child watching the people backstage and just standing out there on that stage where all the great people stood, just thinking maybe some day I could be part of them. Now that I’ve been lucky enough and fortunate enough to see that dream come true, I wonder if some little kid might say ‘I bet Dolly Parton once stood here’ or ‘I’m standing where Dolly Parton stood,’ when I used to think ‘I’m standing where Kitty Wells stood,’” Parton said. “So that’s what makes you thankful, that’s what makes you grateful and humble about the fact that everybody’s dreams don’t come true, and I have been so fortunate to see so many of my dreams come true, and I don’t take any of it for granted. As I often say, ‘I count my blessings a lot more than I count my money.’”
The special also features a segment with Parton across town at the former home of the Opry, the Ryman, reflecting on special memories from her career with vintage clips and acoustic covers of country classics by Hank Williams and Maybelle Carter. As she ends the special with the iconic “I Will Always Love You,” the song famously inspired by her professional separation from Wagoner that she now uses as a dedication to her fans, along with an encore of “9 to 5” that once again brings the audience to its feet, the celebration is one of the many ways Parton measures her legacy and impact.
“You never know what’s going to happen to you in your life. You never know if your dreams are going to come true, and if they do, you wonder how people will remember you when you’re older. I’m older, and I’m seeing how people are remembering me and that makes me feel very humble. I’m just very honored that I’m still around not only to just get to accept this, that I can actually perform and get out there and still doing what I love to do,” she reflects. “Maybe I’ll be around another 50 years.”
“Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry” airs on NBC tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT.