Last year's delightful My Grass is Blue, also on Durham's Sugar Hill Records, proved that Dolly Parton, provided with the best musicians in bluegrass, can sing bluegrass with the best of them. So thrilled at winning Album of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association that she literally skipped to the stage on towering heels, the Country Music Hall of Fame member now offers her follow-up, Little Sparrow. A richer and more diverse acoustic album, it reminds us of the substance beneath the makeup.
With the new record, Parton demonstrates remarkable self-awareness, both as an artist and as a commercial entertainer. A composer and interpreter of songs who is comfortable exploring different genres, she absorbs the nuances and resources of a genre and uses this in her own music. This she more than achieves on the powerful Little Sparrow, an exploration of what Parton calls "blue mountain" music. She employs most of the same musicians from My Grass Is Blue, including Durham's Jim Mills on banjo, and provides some similar material.
Yet Parton goes far beyond just another bluegrass album. She augments her astonishing assembly of pickers and singers with Irish superstars Altan: On a reworking of her heartbreaking story-song, "Down From Dover," the blending of Celtic and bluegrass players produces an ethereal, yet compelling sound that somehow seems just as country as the original produced by Porter Wagoner. She and longtime producer Steve Buckingham mix material with equal success, hardly limiting themselves to her compositions and hillbilly classics. Instead, Parton places a ripping cover of Collective Soul's "Shine" between her traditional-sounding title cut and the Louvin Brothers' too-often-covered "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," while juxtaposing a too-much-fun send up of Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You" with "Mountain Angel," an original surely inspired by the mournful ballads she heard as a kid.
Anyone who thinks Dolly Parton is merely a platinum blonde pop icon needs to hear her emotional depth and attention to detail on this record. At least try "Bluer Pastures." If Parton's last bluegrass album was a sign of crack musicianship, Little Sparrow is even better.