From dyed-in-the-wool classics like the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real (1960) to strong contemporary examples such as Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book (2004) and Iris DeMent’s Lifeline (2004), the gospel album has been, and remains, a staple of country music. In 1971, a productive year that saw her release two other albums (Joshua and Coat of Many Colors), Dolly Parton made her first foray into the genre with a record entitled Golden Streets of Glory. Letter to Heaven: Songs of Faith and Inspiration is a re-issue of that release, supplemented by an album outtake and a selection of appropriate singles, including Parton’s 1975 hit “The Seeker”. It’s an appealing work, and alongside the recent re-issues of Parton’s classic late 1960s/early 1970s albums, it stands as a further reminder of just how vital and fundamentally traditional the pre-pop-crossover Parton really was.
With the cream of 1970s Nashville session players on hand to contribute pedal steel, fiddle, guitar, piano, organ, and heavenly harmonies, the sound of Letter to Heaven is archetypal early 1970s country: professional and slick, yet heartfelt and soulful, and by today‘s mainstream country standards, firmly rooted in tradition. Spirituals and hymns such as “I Believe”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (reworked as “Comin’ for to Carry Me Home”), and “Wings of a Dove” get tasteful, subtly inventive treatments and mesh well with Parton’s original material, of which the spirited “The Master’s Hand”, the lovely “Golden Streets of Glory”, the previously unreleased “Would You Know Him (If You Saw Him)”, and the great Porter Wagoner duet “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man” are among the highlights. A notable characteristic of Parton’s own compositions is that they often seem keener to celebrate manifestations of the divine here on Earth rather than rhapsodize about the hereafter.
Of course Parton, the grand-daughter of the fiddle-playing preacher-man to whom the above-cited song is a tribute, has never lacked for conviction when it comes to writing and interpreting this kind of material. Her formative singing experiences (recalled here on the track “Sacred Memories”) occurred in her local church where, as she has recalled, “our services would be mostly music … the old hymns. They were just about the biggest thing we did recreation-wise.” A sense of tradition and of Parton’s deep roots in this music shines through every note that she sings on this album. That’s not to say that it’s all great: “I See God” is simply a schmaltzier variant on the Louvins’ wonderful “He Can Be Found”, while the title track — about a little girl’s swiftly-fulfilled wish to be reunited with her momma in Heaven — is more horrifying than consoling.
But overall, and thanks in no small part to the always appealing delicacy and twang of Parton’s unmistakeable vocals, there’s a sweetness and sincerity to Letter to Heaven that endows the record much more than just kitsch appeal. This is a lovely, thoughtfully compiled release, and one that Parton fans are sure to welcome.