Dolly Parton,
Halos & Horns
(Sugar Hill, 2002)

There seems to be this curious characteristic about some albums, a terrible fascination that leads you to play certain tracks over and over, and even to play them for your friends, as if in sheer disbelief that this particular song could have gotten recorded, However, instead of a feeling of schadenfreude toward the rich and successful artist, you're actually embarrassed for them that they've released this kind of thing permanently into the world. Such is the case with Dolly Parton's new Sugar Hill CD.

Though I was never a big fan of Parton's earlier work, I adored her two previous Sugar Hill outings. They were solid bluegrass with bare-bones backup by some of the finest musicians in the genre, and Parton's original songs were inventive and effective. But while I loved those, I cringed throughout Halos & Horns. Parton admits that slumping record sales brought her back to bluegrass several years ago, but with this release she seems to be trying to retain her new bluegrass fan base while recapturing the fans of her earlier Nashville sound, who've long since drifted away. The strategy might well work, but this bluegrass fan can only sit and shake his head in bewilderment.

In general, the songs are over-produced, with drums, much fuller arrangements and choirs oo-ing and ah-ing in the background. Parton indulges her taste for dramatically speaking many lines rather than singing them, and this hillbilly sprechstimme becomes unbearably cloying when heard in nearly every track. But what really sinks this album is the choice of songs, particularly Parton's originals, which make up a whopping 12 of the 14 tracks.

Her first (and title) track has one of the worst lyric lines I've ever come across, one that would earn a D- in Songwriting 101: "Halos and horns, sinners and saints/Hearts that are torn between what's wrong and ain't." Huh? Does she mean between what's wrong and what ain't wrong? If so, then add another eighth-note and drop in a "what" before the final word. Otherwise, it's gibberish. The pain continues on "Sugar Hill," whose tune is reminiscent of "Cripple Creek," and whose lyrics about swimming naked and foolin' around contain the lines, "Shug-shug-shug, Sugar Hill mem'ries/Stealin' sugar on the mountainside/Shug-shug-shug, Sugar Hill sugar/Sweeter than candy and cake and pie," as well as "Stealin' sugar on the mountaintop ... sweeter than ice cream and soda pop." Diabetics beware.

"Not for Me" is a mawkish song with a mawkish orchestration that takes us back into '70s-era Parton, and "Hello God" is another of those post-9/11 anthems that nearly every country star has been inflicting on us lately. This one is doubly offensive in that it seems to blame the disaster on the country's sins: "All the free will you have given, we have made a mockery of/This is no way to be livin', we're in great need of your love ... Please forgive us for we know not what we do/Hello God, give us one more chance to prove ourselves to you...." What's the difference between this and Pat Robertson's similar babblings about the destruction of the WTC being God's payback for the United States' spiritual shortcomings?

Parton doesn't do much better here with other writer's material. The long lyric lines of David Gates' "If" are broken up by so many shallow breaths that the words lose their meaning, and that golden oldie, "Stairway to Heaven," reveals itself to be a very boring piece of music indeed when separated from the original version's flare and fireworks.

The nadir of an already sad album has to be "These Old Bones," a near-six minute playlet similar to the far more successful "Mountain Angel" from Parton's previous (and highly recommended) album, Little Sparrow. Here Parton shows off her supposed acting chops by cackling through much of the song in the character of a psychic old mountain crone with a voice that would break a Mason jar. It turns out that the narrator is actually the crone's long-lost daughter and also psychic, allowing the two Dollys to do a final duet before the crone does a jaw-droppingly ghastly monologue that has to be heard to be believed. It's one of the classic unintentionally hilarious songs of all time.

And the flops keep coming. "What a Heartache" has an drone-on ending that makes the finale of Beethoven's Eroica symphony look terse in comparison, "Raven Dove" ends with some crazed melodic jumps that turn hallelujahs into war whoops, and by the time we get to the sole listenable track, a rocking gospel song called "John Daniel," we're so tired of Parton's vocal bag of tricks that we're too weary to enjoy it the way we should.

So the final verdict is guilty: guilty of returning to a style that has not aged well and which I hoped Parton had left behind; guilty of some execrable songwriting; and guilty of disappointing those of us who hoped that Parton's next Sugar Hill album would be another step on the road to enshrinement as a true bluegrass goddess. Unfortunately the path is much more slippery than it might appear.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 6 July 2002

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