Dolly Parton,
Little Sparrow
(Sugar Hill, 2001)

It is so good to see Dolly Parton returning to her true roots. The Grass Is Blue, her first bluegrass album, was a gem, and this one's even better, showing off Parton's sensitive voice and skillful songwriting, backed up with a raft of sidemen and women that reads like a Who's Who of contemporary bluegrass: Alison Kraus, Dan Tyminski, Bryan Sutton, Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Jim Mills, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, Claire Lynch, Rhonda Vincent, Maura O'Connell, Carl Jackson, Mike Snider and lots more, all in fine form throughout.

The album is thematic, with love as the theme -- love hoped for, love found and love too often lost. Parton has written seven of the songs here, and her compositions are the highlights. "Little Sparrow," the first track, is hers, and starts off with an a capella sound of the mountains that chills while it warms. It moves into a faster tempo, but never loses its doleful qualities. Stuart Duncan's fiddle comments on the singer and her song, the voices coming close enough to make fiddle and singer twin souls.

"Shine" really changes the pace. This is a straight-out rock 'n' roll power ballad done bluegrass style, right down to the raging guitar duet (here a fiddle and guitar) and a Jack Bruce-style bass riff. Elvis would've loved to have done this during his last decade of live shows. You haven't heard anything quite like this before, and isn't that what great music should be all about? And speaking of great music, "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" should be one of the worst songs of all time, but I just love it. Its lyrics are corny, the switcheroo at the end is hokey and it has a sappy tune. So why does it work so damn well? It did for the Louvin Brothers, it did for Alison Kraus and it does for Dolly Parton. 'Nuff said.

"My Blue Tears" is a Parton original, a beautiful ballad with some delightful dipping and shifting harmonies at the end. More vocal wonders are found in the trio that starts "Seven Bridges Road" before the instruments kick in. "Bluer Pastures" is a more traditional Parton bluegrass ballad, as well it might be with such lines as "Where the bluegrass music's always playing / To the haunting sound of Monroe's mandolin."

Nobody does heartbreak songs better than Parton. There's always a catch and a tear in her voice, and never more so than in "A Tender Lie," a knowing and ironic song by Randy Sharp ("How much more damage, now, honestly / Could one tender lie do?"). Jerry Douglas's resophonic guitar sobs along. "I Get a Kick Out Of You" starts out promisingly with a Quintette of the Hot Club of France flavor, but then Parton comes in, and it turns out to be the CD's sole misfire. This is the kind of song on which she sounds like a kewpie doll given voice, and the three-part harmonies seem contrived and out of place here.

However, I'm more than willing to forgive her, for the next tune is the album's highlight: "Mountain Angel," a seven-minute tour de force written by Parton. It's partly sung, partly spoken and completely hair-raising, telling the tale of a Miss Havisham of the Hills who slowly becomes something far worse. The "Mountain Angel" is betrayed by the man she loves, who is rumored to be the devil. It's filled with supernatural overtones and eerie harmonies and images, and would have fit quite snugly into the Louvin Brothers' classic album, Tragic Songs of Life. It's a perfect showcase for Parton's masterful acting skills.

After such grimness, the high spirits of "Marry Me," another Parton original, is a welcome relief, with such jaunty lyrics as "He knows a lot about love and stuff / And he's gonna marry me." It's a real charmer. But in the world of Little Sparrow, charm never lasts. Parton's "Down From Dover" follows, a powerful song of betrayal, self-deception and acceptance whose last line will not fail to move you. Anyone who still considers Dolly Parton a punchline rather than an artist will do well to listen.

"The Beautiful Lie" is a touching duet between Parton and Stuart Duncan's fiddle. It segues into "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," which proves as heavenly as its title. The unity of the album comes full circle in the reprise of "Little Sparrow," sung wordlessly and hauntingly.

There have been those in the bluegrass field who have demeaned the awards and accolades that this album and its predecessor have received, saying that the only reason they got the attention they did was because of Parton's fame as a country music queen and film star. Parton has been quite open about her return to bluegrass, saying that she's come back to the music that she loves best because her popularity in mainstream country music has been on the wane. Such honesty is refreshing. But the praise and success of the two Sugar Hill albums has been due to the much more obvious fact that Parton is a brilliant and empathetic songwriter and a consummate singing actress. Were she to come down today from the Tennessee hills a total unknown with her songs and her voice, within a year she would be crowned the unchallenged Queen of Bluegrass. She's that good.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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