Charley Crockett is a local blues musician. He recently won the Dallas Observer Music Award for Best Blues Act, and his sophomore album, In the Night — which was nominated for best album — will be released on vinyl Dec. 29.
A few years back I was making my living playing music on Royal Street in New Orleans and selling cheap recordings out of brown paper lunch bags all day. I picked up all kinds of songs off of other traveling musicians drifting in and out of town: drinking songs, early show tunes, blues, traditionals, spirituals — you name it. Every day was a kaleidoscope of musical sounds mixed with the smell of bourbon and po-boys.
There used to be this barefoot singer who called herself Angel Eyes and she would show up from time to time to sing deep spirituals in random doorways along the street. I've never heard anyone with more soul since. Late one night I ran into her in front of Rouse's grocery store in The Quarter. She was singing the most beautiful song with lyrics that went like this:
Silver and gold might buy you a home
Things of this world ain't gonna last you long
The lord has a way of making us old
Your time won't be bought back with silver and gold
The message struck me deep. She had so much raw emotion in her voice as she sang that it stayed with me. I remember looking up the song as soon as I could and a Dolly Parton recording was the first thing I found. I can't say I knew many of Parton's songs off the top of my head at the time, even though she was a household name as famous and iconic as Betty Crocker or Marilyn Monroe. But that "Silver And Gold" tune really spoke to me and I was surprised to find Parton singing such an organic gospel tune, especially since I'd picked it up off a homeless woman in Louisiana.
There's nothing better to me in this world than old-time spirituals. I think it's the only kind of music there is when you really get down to it. You can dress up songs and call them whatever you want but it's all just gospel to me. So when Parton passed through Dallas on Dec. 3 and my manager had tickets including a meet-and-greet, I was chompin' at the bit to find out what she was all about.
We arrived at Verizon Theater and folks were lined up for a mile to get in the front door. Luckily, we got to skip that line and meet up with a much smaller group waiting to have their pictures taken with Parton. Boy, was I weak in the knees when it came my turn! Stars like that seem mythical, unreal, and I wasn't sure if I was awake or dreaming when she looked over at me in her yellow diamond-studded dress. I'm grateful my legs kept working, honestly. She told me I looked like a movie star and I replied that she was putting me on since she actually is one! Steel Magnolias? Come on now! Parton radiated a more genuine vibe than almost any successful artist I've ever met. They snapped our picture and the next thing I knew we were down the hallway.
I expected the show to be this dazzling, over-the-top production like her Dixieland Stampede in Branson, Missouri, or a Las Vegas spectacle, but that wasn't the case. The stage was simple and she came right out with a glistening acoustic guitar and three guys backing her up in a bluegrass style. It felt like I was at a Pentecostal church back in the 1930s mixed in with The Grand Ole Opry and The Johnny Cash Show. Her music was uplifting. She told stories as true as Aesop's Fables, and it was plain to see that she's up with the times.
At one point she stopped and talked about fear being used to divide people since the beginning of time and encouraged the audience to not let folks in ivory towers take away our love for one another. That tiny woman is powerful and she commanded that "little theater" of 7,000 people with a graceful ease. The audience was hypnotized. Parton didn't lose my attention for a second. She performed famous tunes including "Jolene" and "9 to 5" but most of the night was dedicated to good old fashioned revival music. I saw a burning fire in that woman that's missing in my generation and the more young people who get out to see her the better.
When I got my photo taken with Parton I thanked her for carrying the tradition. I felt like she was really hearing me, though she probably hears such things all the time. I've thought about her a lot since the show; about how her music is floating out there in gifted souls like Angel Eyes down in New Orleans. Parton's easily one of the most influential artists in American history. She's an actual icon and her music is honest and rooted in her ability to transform her own struggles and share them with others. That's a timeless message, pure and simple.