Dolly Parton exudes such charisma and personality that it is easy to forget just what made her a star in the first place. While Parton has earned a place in the popular conscience through movie roles, variety shows, and a theme park, she was able to do all those things because, very early in her career, she established herself as an amazingly gifted composer with a stunning voice.
Somewhere along the way, Parton got so famous that even she seemed to forget how fantastically talented she is. While she achieved a great deal of success and paved the way for today’s crossover country stars by performing pop material, she did so at the expense of her country roots, and by the mid-1980s, it seemed that Parton was concentrating more on glitzy arrangements than the songs themselves.
Having lost much of her audience and relevance, Parton rethought her career in the late 1990s, and returned to composing and singing traditional country on her album Hungry Again. In 1999, Parton went a step further by releasing her first bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue, which won widespread critical acclaim and reestablished her as a vibrant force in the music world.
Wisely, Parton has decided to keep the same players in tow for the follow-up, Little Sparrow. Steve Buckingham once again produces, while Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Jim Mills, Barry Bales, and Alison Krauss return as backing musicians. As on her previous effort, Parton mixes original compositions (old and new), country and gospel classics by other composers, and unexpected bluegrass arrangements of pop songs. The big surprise on The Grass Is Blue was a convincing bluegrass rendition of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer”. This time, Parton reinvents Collective Soul’s alternative rock hit “Shine”, complete with a lilting banjo line.
What makes Little Sparrow different from its predecessor, and in some ways more exciting, is that it frequently goes right back to the source of bluegrass—Celtic music. Not only are there banjos and autoharps on the album, but Northern Irish group Altan contributes whistles, bouzoukis, and haunting Gaelic verse.
The album’s traditional flavor is strongest, however, in the deeply poetic and tragic lyrics of the Parton compositions “Little Sparrow”, “Mountain Angel”, and “Down from Dover”. All three are epic tales of love and loss in which Parton creates a landscape littered with the broken hearts of women who have lost everything after loving the wrong men. Anyone who isn’t touched by these songs must be brain-dead.
Few would have guessed in the days of “Islands in the Stream” and “9 to 5” that Parton would return to pure country music, and do so with such spectacular results. Little Sparrow contains some of the most beautiful and affecting music Parton has ever made, and the fact that she is doing it in her fifth decade makes it all the more dazzling an achievement.