‘Night of 1,000 Dollys’ pays homage to the queen of country music

NY: Night of 1000 Dollys
The Ukulele Cabaret players presented Dolly Parton tunes at the ‘Night of 1,000 Dollys’ at the Gowanus Dredger Boathouse.
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

What a way to make a living!

Nearly two dozen players with the Ukulele Cabaret channeled their inner Dolly Parton at the “Night of 1,000 Dollys” on Saturday night, when they performed in front of a packed house at the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club Boathouse.

Parton — the most honored female country performer of all time — would have been proud seeing the musicians, many dressed up in dazzling outfits with country flair and wearing wigs featuring Dolly’s signature big, blonde hair. The ‘Dollys’ took the stage to play classics like “Jolene,” “Islands in the Stream,” “9-5” and “Little Sparrow,” while the crowd sang along. 

The Ukulele Cabaret teamed up with the Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse Canoe Club through Liz Rabson Schnore, the club’s musical director, and the April 20 event was the first of four cabaret performances coming up at the Boathouse throughout the summer. 

Jason Tagg started the cabaret — first called “Sonic Uke” — in 205 with his friend Ted in the West Village. Tagg described the Ukulele players as an “eclectic” bunch with a very New York feeling. 

Jason Tagg said Dolly Parton was his musical and personal hero.
The Ukulele Cabaret players presented Dolly Parton tunes at the ‘Night of 1,000 Dollys’ at the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club Boathouse.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“It’s a little different than a strum along because everyone brings their own style, brings their own way of playing ukulele,” Tagg told Brooklyn Paper. “So this evening, you’ll see every different way of playing ukulele you could possibly imagine and every different vocalization.”

Shannon Ybarra, who co-hosted the event alongside Tagg, said the Ukulele Cabaret came up with a different theme for each of the four Boathouse performances — and that Dolly was a “natural” choice.

“Dolly is on everyone’s mind, on the forefront with the Rock N Roll album and everything she’s doing,” Ybarra said. “It was natural to start the first one as a Dolly-themed cabaret.”

“She’s really our musical hero and personal hero,” Tagg added. “I don’t really follow celebrities, but everything that she’s done, I think is wonderful. We’re so happy to celebrate her this evening.”

Jason Tagg and Shannon Ybarra perform Dolly Parton songs to a full house.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Ukelele players donned sequins, denim, blonde hair and more to pay tribute to the ‘Queen of country.’Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Tagg, who hails from New Zealand, played the piano in his home country, but since he couldn’t bring his instrument to New York, he began playing the ukulele in 1999. 

“I was stuck for a little while thinking, ‘Well, I guess I don’t play music.’ But the ukulele was so perfect for someone who recently arrived in New York, and I liked the low barrier of entry. It’s pretty easy to play,” Tagg said. 

Ybarra said everyone was welcome to join the cabaret.

“Regardless of what level you’re at,” Ybarra said. “If you picked [the ukulele] up that afternoon, you could play.”

D’yan Forest, who recently received the Guinness World Record title for the Oldest Working Female Comedian in the World, not only performed her version of “Hello Dolly,” but also told a few jokes.

Ukulele player and comedian D’yan Forest sang ‘Hello Dolly’.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
The crowd enjoyed listening to Dolly Parton tunes presented by Ukulele Cabaret.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The 89-year-old comic told Brooklyn she wanted a guitar when she was 16. However, her parents didn’t think the instrument was appropriate for a girl and instead bought her a ukulele. 

Forest — who the late comedian Joan Rivers once called “the filthy ukulele player” — said Ukulele Cabaret was the best but admitted that she didn’t know many of Parton’s songs. 

“So I did ‘Hello Dolly.’ Why not? So I’ve been practicing and practicing. And, of course, when I got here, I forgot all the chords. So I just went out and sang,” Forest joked.

After 9/11, she added stand-up comedy to her repertoire and had her start at Caroline’s Comedy Club. 

Dolly Parton lovers enjoyed the scenery during intermission.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
No one Dolly looked alike.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“People were ready to laugh,” said Forest, who will celebrate her 90th Birthday in July with a show at Joe’s Pub in NOH. “What I do is I play my age, and I make fun of my age and how you can have fun at 89. And it works.”

The Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse has hosted music acts for the past six years. Rabson Schnore, a ukulelist in her own right, has attended Ukulele Cabaret shows for years and enjoys what they do. 

“We did one [Ukulele Cabaret] last year, and I was like, ‘This is so great, we should do more this year,'” Rabson Schnore said. 

Gary Francis, captain of the Gowanus Dredgers, explained that the all-volunteer organization — which advocate for public water access and environmental cleanup — also hosts an array of cultural events, including art and music performances. He described Ukulele Cabaret as “our people.”

The Ukulele Cabaret players presented Dolly Parton tunes at the ‘Night of 1,000 Dollys’ at the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club BoathousePhoto by Gabriele Holtermann
Jessica Crowley and John Valdes said the performances were ‘exceptional.’Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“We had these guys come last year, and we had such a blast with them, we were like, ‘Hey, do you want to just come every month next year? We’ll just let you guys run with it,” he said.

Queens residents Jessica Crowley and John Valdes, both sporting blond wigs, heard about the event through a Brooklyn newsletter. Crowley said she grew up listening to country music when it “wasn’t cool” — and that the event gave her an excuse to buy two blonde wigs.

“I feel like in college, I started to appreciate [Parton] more for being herself no matter what and not taking any shade from anybody,” Crowley said.  

Valdes grew up in Columbia, where Parton was more known for her movies. 

“And then when I came here, I think maybe seven or eight years ago, I got [Parton’s album] ‘Coat of Many Colors,'” Valdes said. “I really enjoyed it, and I’ve been a fan since then.”

The packed crowd at the Boathouse had a great time paying homage to the iconic country singer.

“The playing has been exceptional. It seems like there’s a real good sense of community,” Valdes said. “A lot of  interesting looking Dolly versions, including myself as a bearded, Black Dolly.”

Ukelele Cabaret will return to the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club on June 15 for “Shipwrecked on Ukulele Island.” For more information and a full lineup of the club’s in- and out-of-water events, visit gowanusdredgers.org.