Although it might seem strange, Dolly Parton’s return to her roots was something of a risk. The first record of her bluegrass trilogy, The Grass is Blue, came out in late 1999 when renewed interest in Appalachian music was just starting to bubble, and right before O Brother Where Art Thou? blew the lid off the pot altogether. It’s still a bit of a risk — Nashville seems intent on constructing an alternate reality where O Brother never happened, and while bluegrass fans are an intensely loyal lot, they’ll probably never be numerous enough to put Garth Brooks out of business.
Parton’s “new” sound has attracted a lot of attention, mainly because our short cultural memory has her pegged as the sequin-wearing matriarch of her Dollywood theme park. When she burst upon the scene back in the ’60s, though, she already carried her home’s harmonies and storytelling tradition. Songs like “Jolene” are still chill-inducing for good reason: Parton’s never been afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve and try something strange. Pitfalls have accompanied the triumphs, and the glossiness of her “9 to 5” period is hard to listen to now, but it’s a path that’s placed Parton in a unique financial position to do whatever the heck she wants to.
That willingness to try something new is a vital part of her personal bluegrass revival, especially in her choice of cover versions. The Grass is Blue featured bluegrass reworkings of Blackfoot’s “Train, Train” and Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” (both of which worked). Little Sparrow draped gorgeous harmonies over “Seven Bridges Road” and while her take on Collective Soul’s “Shine” didn’t completely work, it didn’t miss by much. Halos and Horns features a stunning version of Bread’s “If” and her most ambitious foray into the rock catalog yet: Led Zeppelin’s mammoth, seemingly sacrosanct “Stairway to Heaven”. More on that later, though; “Stairway” merely caps off a pretty strong, spiritually-themed album.
It’s not a pure gospel record; some songs are definitely secular (“Sugar Hill”, for example, is about growing up and stealing kisses in the woods), but Parton makes such good use of harmonies and joyful singing that Halos and Horns often feels only a step or two away from a revival. The true gospel numbers like “Hello God”, “John Daniel”, and the title track are gospel bluegrass of the highest order. “Raven Dove” features a gorgeous chorus of hallelujahs. Ironically, it’s the old-time bluegrass numbers that seem to come closest to leaving their traditional roots. Parton layers the voices in very contemporary fashion (and might even be a little too slick for some folks), but thankfully, doesn’t lose her way.
For the most part, Halos and Horns works. The only obvious misstep is “These Old Bones”, which Parton sings in a nasally old woman’s voice. Possible missteps include “Hello God”, which starts off pretty sappy before it gets going, and “Sugar Hill”, which rides a melody with a disturbing resemblance to Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.” And to these ears, her reworking of “Stairway to Heaven” gets too busy for its own good by the end. Covering “Stairway” is probably a losing proposition to begin with; it’s so ingrained in our collective rock consciousness that you listen to someone else’s version with tension, like it’s some roller coaster ride slowly picking up speed and hurtling off the tracks. To Parton’s credit, she puts a new spin on the song, adding some (Plant & Page approved) lyrics about the “almighty dollar” at the end. Following the album’s spiritual bent, she turns it into a gospel number. The first two-thirds is gentle, awash in lightly played mandolin and fiddle. As it picks up speed, a full gospel choir comes in and the result is a cacophany of voices that lessens the song’s power.
Still, you’ve got to give her credit for trying. In fact, Halos and Horns is full of moments where Parton follows an intuition that others might have shied away from, but she pulls it off. It’s rare to hear an album with such a lack of self-consciousness. That’s always been one of Parton’s strengths, though — that ability to do things that don’t feel like calculated risks, but which are just Dolly being Dolly. It’s unclear where Parton will go from here. When The Grass is Blue came out, it was touted as the first part of a trilogy which Halos and Horns supposedly ends. It’s doubtful that Parton will forget her roots — they’ve always been hiding in the shadows of even her slickest work — but it will be interesting to see where her sense of artistic freedom takes her next.