Mark Lamb and Nancy Brennan Strange Put Together an All-Star Local Tribute to Dolly Parton

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Artistic director Mark Lamb first pulled together a cast and performed the Dolly Parton tribute A Boy and His Dolly six years ago at Metro Baptist Church in New York City. An evening-length show with live music, it’s the story of Dolly’s impact on the young Lamb growing up in rural Kentucky. He performed it as a birthday present to himself.

“It seemed fitting to do the show at the Metro, because it is a holy place, and I consider Dolly Parton to be a spiritual guide,” he says.

Next week, Lamb will bring the latest version of the tribute show to the Bijou Theatre, with about a dozen regional musicians—including Robinella, Kelle Jolly, Christina Horn, Sean McCollough, and Sarah Pirkle— lending their voices and Dolly interpretations under the creative leadership of Lamb and the musical direction of Knoxville folkie-jazz favorite Nancy Brennan Strange. This time, it’s Dolly’s birthday—her 70th—and they will celebrate back in the city where she got her start as a 9-year-old girl, singing for the Cas Walker radio show, to benefit Dolly’s Imagination Library program.

Lamb is from Sturgis, Ky.—pop. 2,000—and first saw Dolly on her television show in the 1970s. “When she came out of the ceiling on a red velvet rope swing, I thought she was an angel from heaven,” he says.

He wrote the show in 30 minutes, “like it came to me in a vision,” on a drive from Kentucky to East Tennessee. He says he ultimately envisioned it at the Bijou. It will pick up more local flavor from the artists he’s working with this go-’round, all musicians he’s collaborated with in the past, some from his 14 years as a dancer in Knoxville. (He now lives in Brooklyn.)

“Dolly’s not easy to play,” he says. “As we work together, it is always nice to see my collaborators start to understand her depth of lyric and music. It’s also fun to see the audience react not only to what Dolly means to me but how much she has done for the world, which I also explain in my story.”

The show is an easier reach for audiences in the South, Lamb says. “Here, it is very much like preaching to the choir—a celebration of someone we all know and love. When I do this show up north, I feel like I am evangelizing the merits of the genius that is Dolly Parton. People usually join the Dolly flock after they’ve heard my story.”

Strange says the show is not precisely a tribute to Dolly the celebrity. “It’s more a tribute to how Dolly affected Mark spiritually and made him feel good about himself. It’s his story, with her songs running through it,” she says.

Strange was part of the cast the first time Lamb’s show ran in Knoxville, three years ago, and she went on tour with him last year. She started playing here in Knoxville at age 19; she honed her performance skills when she was a secretary at a psychiatric ward, and the patients needed calming interactions. She’s been a big fan of Dolly’s music “ever since I knew about her when I was a little girl,” and particularly loves the “greatest song ever, ‘Coat of Many Colors.’” But Strange says she’s never considered performing any Dolly-written songs before now.

“I was a folk singer, and then got into jazz, and wrote my own stuff, and just never thought about it,” she says. “I didn’t think I could do Dolly justice.”

She’ll sing on three numbers in the show and notes that all the songs do Dolly justice, “There’s not a bad one in the bunch,” she says. “Mark is really fun to work with. We are doing Dolly songs, but if you’ve got a way you want to do it, yes, he lets you put yourself in.”

Eventually, Lamb would like this show to be a springboard to something bigger. “My ultimate goal is to have it be part of a larger celebration of Dolly Parton—perhaps a festival that happens annually in East Tennessee? I recently spent time at Dolly’s Dream More resort, and I would love to perform it there, too.”

Due to Dolly’s longstanding policy of not singling out any of the charities she supports, she will not be in attendance, but her company did send a short video to open the show, with previously unseen footage of Dolly in East Tennessee. A documentary filmmaker has also been shadowing the show’s production, and the entire performance will run in the finished film.

Both performer-directors have tantalizing hints about the show. Strange is especially looking forward to “Here You Come Again,” Dolly’s 1977 crossover pop hit. She doesn’t want to reveal the unusual nature of the arrangement they’ll use: “That would be a spoiler.”

Lamb’s favorite Dolly song is also in the show. “It is sung by my friend Jodie Manross. I would rather not give away the title because it is part of the show, but this particular song that Dolly wrote gives me strength and courage and it is also my way of saying thank you to Knoxville for growing me as an artist.”

One number that’s not a secret is the finale, and it harks back to that first church show, says Strange. Dolly wrote it a long time ago and resurrected it for the Joyful Noise movie she did with Queen Latifah in 2012: “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”

“We all sing it together, and it’s real positive—we will raise the roof,” says Strange. “We are giving ourselves an encore, too, even if the audience doesn’t.”


The Dolly Parton birthday tribute will be held at the Bijou Theatre (803 S. Gay St.) on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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