By Sarah Rodman
February 09, 2019 at 03:29 PM EST

If you’ve ever wondered what a legendary artist might be thinking during an all-star tribute, Dolly Parton has your answer: “It’s sort of like watching porn, you’re not personally involved but you still get off on it.”

That quip was just one of the many laugh lines during the extraordinary, and extraordinarily moving, 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year gala Friday night at the Los Angeles Convention Center. A parade of peers and those influenced by the iconic singer-songwriter-actress-author-philanthropist, including Garth Brooks, Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlile, and Miley Cyrus– took the stage to sing both her praises and her songs. The event raised $6.7 million dollars for the Recording Academy’s MusiCares organization which provides confidential preventative, recovery, and emergency programs to address financial, medical, and personal health issues for musicians in need.

The two-hour-plus show, a precursory celebration to the Grammy awards, kicked off with a measured, soulful reading of “Jolene” by Pink, who imbued the classic with yearning and power.

Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Little Big Town then arrived to serve as the night’s emcees, popping up between performances to introduce performances and playfully argue about which member is the biggest fan. (Kimberly Schlapman was the clear winner, having named her daughter Dolly.) The congenial quartet did a great job as hosts but it was a shame they didn’t actually have a performance slot given that, when asked to stretch, their impromptu version of “Those Memories of You” from the Trio album Parton made with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, was one of the night’s harmonic high points. (Seriously, those four vamping on a truncated number was as good as some of the full performances.)

Speaking of that Trio album, another high point was the inspired teaming of Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland with Best New Artist Grammy nominee Margo Price and the under-sung spitfire Cam for a harmony-rich rendition of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”

Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Other savvy and satisfying collaborations included Katy Perry and Album of the Year nominee Kacey Musgraves cheerfully romping through “Here You Come Again,” Vince Gill and Don Henley joining forces for the elegiac “Eagle When She Flies” (we see what you did there, Don), Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes tackling the classic Parton-Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream,” Mavis Staples and Leon Bridges injecting some fervor into the proceedings with the help of a gospel choir on “Not Enough” and Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s exquisite acoustic rendition of “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.” (Fun fact: This 1980 No. 1 hit for Parton was co-written by Kesha’s mom Pebe Sebert.)

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Willie Nelson and Brandi Carlile — this year’s most nominated female artist at the Grammys — made a strong team on a beautiful version of “Everything’s Beautiful (In It’s Own Way),” a hit for Parton and Nelson in 1982. Their voices were a beguiling mix of grit and velvet and Nelson, himself the center of a recent tribute, signed off at the end with a simple, but heartstring-tugging “We love you, Doll.”

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Yolanda Adams brought the crowd to its feet with a stunning vocal on “I Will Always Love You,” Chris Stapleton added some southern swampiness to “9 to 5,” Norah Jones was typically understated on “The Grass is Blue,” and Lauren Daigle made an impression with an impassioned version of “The Seeker.” Many of the performers were backed by a top-notch house band led by the legendary-in- his- own-right session musician Greg Phillinganes and a number of video packages were interspersed between acts highlighting the various stages of Parton’s illustrious career.

One of the night’s most touching surprises, which was also apparently a surprise to Parton herself, was the appearance of Linda Ronstadt with Emmylou Harris to present the East Tennessee legend with the award. It was incredibly poignant to see the trio reunited, particularly in light of the Parkinson’s diagnosis that has prevented Ronstadt from performing.

“I truly am honored,” said Parton, the first country to be awarded the MusiCares Person of the Year. (Previous honorees include James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Lionel Richie, and Carole King).

Parton’s acceptance speech was a combination of trademark quips — “I truly can feel the love in the house tonight, either that or my telephone’s on vibrate”– and heartfelt sentiments for those who supported her on the journey from “the hills of East Tennessee to the Hollywood hills.”

“All of my life I have been known for two things… well, not them,” said Parton to the laughing, cheering crowd knowing what they were thinking. “I’ve also been known as a singer and songwriter too…although I’m not complaining, ol’ Pancho and Lefty’s been pretty good to me. Everybody always expects me to do a boob joke and I like to do that right up front.”

“People say to me, ‘Well wasn’t it a man’s world back when you got in the business?’ And I say It sure was and buddy I had a ball because I have actually worked with so many wonderful men and I’ve never met a man I didn’t like and I have never met a man whose ass I couldn’t kick if he didn’t treat me with the right respect. I also still have that pistol in my purse and I can still change him from a rooster to a hen with one shot,” she said, quoting her 9 to 5 character Doralee Rhodes.

Credit: Lester Cohen/Getty Images

But, seriously– as Parton often said Friday night– for all the one-liners and the high hair and the enduring camp factor surrounding her image, the event helped underscore the core element of why Parton has and always will matter: the songs. There is a reason she is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and been given a Kennedy Center Honor. Hers is a songbook of great beauty and power, of a woman telling her own stories and those she’s observed with a keen eye for detail and sly insight. A voice of comfort and anguish, of light frivolity and dark despair. She is an artist who, as she has so eloquently sung herself, should not be judged by her cover, because Parton runs true and deep.

That much was on display when she closed the night, accompanied by Producer of the Year Grammy nominee Linda Perry on guitar, with the song that started it all, the timeless “Coat of Many Colors.”

A mini-version of sorts will take place Sunday during a Parton tribute medley expected during the 61st Grammy Awards on CBS at 8 p.m.

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