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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1225

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Dolly Parton: Little Sparrow
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 3027 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/30/2001)

It's often easy to dismiss an artist whose work seems to lie outside one's area of interest. This is usually justifiable, since performers do tend to stick with the musical genre in which their reputation lies. So I never thought I would be reviewing a Dolly Parton album on this series. Ms. Parton, a huge star on the Nashville country scene, plus a staple in show-biz and glamour circles, would seem not to have a lot to do with our little eclectic corner of the music world. But as it turns out, she is not to be underestimated, with the release of her delightful new bluegrass album Little Sparrow, a record that is about as far from commercial Nashville country as one can get in the Tennessee capital. And she really demonstrates her eclecticism by doing a interesting range of material from unexpected sources, plus a healthy collection of worthy original songs, backed by some of the finest acoustic musicians around.

Much has been written about Ms. Parton, her humble beginnings and her rise to be one of the most popular and glamorous entertainers in Nashville, selling millions of records. Over the years, her interests have expanded to include film work, her own TV series, owning a record label, and creating a theme park, Dollywood.

But now in her mid-50s, somewhat turned off by the state of country music in Nashville, and with the shuttering of her former record label in the wake of media takeovers, Ms. Parton decided to go back to her roots and turn her attention to straight bluegrass. It's the field of music in which Ms. Parton began her career, singing on a bluegrass radio show at age 10 around 1952.

In 1999, after her album Hungry Again was released, and eventually got lost in the record business consolidation, she turned to the small, independent bluegrass-oriented label Sugar Hill Records, and got together with some of Nashville's finest acoustic pickers to create The Grass Is Blue, which turned out to be a revelation for those of us who automatically associated Ms. Parton with the commercial country scene. The CD, released in the fall of 1999, turned quite a few people's heads and certainly increased Ms. Parton's credibility among fans of honest bluegrass music, and it was nominated for a Grammy Award. Though the CD was worthy on its own merits, it was still dominated by the gee-whiz factor of hearing Ms. Parton doing straight bluegrass.

Her new album Little Sparrow shows that The Grass Is Blue was not just a one-off project to show us that Ms. Parton could do bluegrass if she wanted to. The new CD shows a further level of musical maturity, standing as a fine acoustic album, regardless of Ms. Parton's commercial resumé. She gets even more eclectic on this CD with nice bluegrass covers of songs ranging from the alternative rock band Collective Soul to The Eagles to a Cole Porter standard, together with six original pieces by Ms. Parton. For this CD she is joined by several of the backing musicians who appeared on The Grass Is Blue including Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Barry Bales, guitarist Bryan Sutton, plus several special guests, including contemporary bluegrass luminary Alison Krauss on backing vocals, Chris Thile of the outstanding young bluegrass band Nickel Creek, as well as members of the Celtic band Altan. While a couple of the songs do come rather close to country-style over-sentimentality, the greatest portion of the album's 14 tracks represent high quality progressive bluegrass with exceptionally fine playing from all involved, and some lyrically interesting songs, including those by Ms. Parton herself.

Leading off is the original title song Little Sparrow, which Ms. Parton says was inspired by a line in the old traditional ballad Come Fair and Tender Ladies. The song has the sad quality of the latter, and features the backing vocals of Alison Krauss. <<>>

That is followed by a rather unconventional choice for a song on a bluegrass album, Shine, by the band Collective Soul. Ms. Parton said that her husband's taste in music runs toward heavier rock, and she was taken by that songs after hearing her husband playing the record. The song translates well into bluegrass, thanks to the fine musicianship, and Ms. Parton's strong vocals, which work especially well. <<>>

Another song from outside the bluegrass world that is covered by Ms. Parton and her colleagues is the Eagles' hit Seven Bridges Road written by Steve Young. The acapella opening part is given an all-female performance with backing vocals by Sonya and Becky Isaacs... <<>> before the band breaks into a rousing bluegrass breakdown. The result is a real highlight of this album. <<>>

Much more traditional bluegrass comes on I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby, by the Louvin Brothers. Lyrically it's a typically sad bluegrass song. <<>>

Also with a very traditional sound is another of Ms. Parton's original compositions, Bluer Pastures, based on another requisite bluegrass lyrical subject, homesickness, in this case for Kentucky. <<>>

One of the songs that features the Celtic band Altan is another Parton original, Down from Dover, a song she had written quite a few years ago, when, as she relates, the subject of on unwed mother was not the sort of thing that would be likely released as a country single. Porter Wagoner recorded it with some verses cut out, but Ms. Parton wanted to make a recording of the full song, and had an opportunity to do it with these outstanding musicians providing the acoustic backing. <<>>

As close as this album comes to clichéd sentimental country is A Tender Lie, which ironically was by the 70s rock band The Amazing Rhythm Aces. It's not bad, but in the midst of this otherwise interesting and eclectic album, it's a bit of a distraction.

Perhaps the most unexpected song on the CD is also one of its most downright enjoyable performances. Cole Porter's classic I Get a Kick Out of You, takes surprisingly well to the bluegrass arrangement, with the band giving the song a nice blend of jazziness and bluegrass. <<>>

Dolly Parton, despite her association with the Nashville country scene and glitzy show biz, has now apparently dedicated herself to straight bluegrass, with excellent results. Her new CD Little Sparrow shows that her previous 1999 bluegrass release The Grass Is Blue was not just a one-off project or novelty for Ms. Parton. Little Sparrow improves and expands upon its predecessor and tackles more eclectic material. It boasts superb musicianship and Ms. Parton's vocals seem more comfortable. She definitely seems to be enjoying returning to the musical style of her youth. The result is not just an interesting album because it's Dolly Parton, but an all-around fine bluegrass/new acoustic record.

In terms of sound quality, we'll give this CD a solid grade "A" with an excellent treatment of the acoustic instruments, and much better than average dynamic range, with the recorded sound nicely capturing the ebb and flow of the music. Ms. Parton's vocal sounds a bit processed, but overall, it makes great listening on a good sound system. Deserving the credit are producer Steve Buckingham and engineer and mixer Gary Paczoca.

Perhaps it's the music industry climate, or maybe it's just a desire to get back to more authentic music, but Dolly Parton joins Ricky Skaggs as another big-name country artist to return to straight bluegrass without regard to commercial considerations. We're all better for it, and it's also a good reason to re-examine the career of this remarkable woman of song.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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