Dolly Parton: Little Sparrow

Dolly Parton: Little Sparrow

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Dolly Parton

Album: Little Sparrow
Label: Sugar Hill

Dolly Parton's professional career has had the dramatic arc of a movie, or at least a Behind The Music episode, traveling from extreme rural poverty to country-music stardom in the 1960s and '70s. Her early singles can stand head to head with those of any of her contemporaries, but what started so well eventually soured into a mess of commercial opportunism, legal wrangling over dissolved partnerships, movie stardom, and poor judgment. Parton wisely made a joke of her unpolished origins and comically feminine persona before anyone else could, investing her music with enough sharpness and sadness to offset her self-deprecation. But eventually, the sharpness became shamelessness, and the sadness unearned sentimentality, leaving only the joke. In a Dolly Parton biopic, her current projects would have the feel of a happy-ending coda. Last year's The Grass Is Blue, a bluegrass album, gave her music focus it hasn't had in years. Little Sparrow makes up the second part of a proposed trilogy of tradition-oriented Parton albums, this one a merger of bluegrass and folk-minded country. So what's a cover of Collective Soul's "Shine" doing on it? Not as much damage as might be expected, but not a lot of good, either. Purism is for fools and fogies, of course, but the rest of the album confirms what the presence of a Collective Soul song suggests: that Little Sparrow doesn't possess the clear-headed direction of its predecessor. But even with an excursion into tragi-kitsch in the form of "Mountain Angel"—more a throwback to the 1977 Parton abomination "Me And Little Andy" than a continuation of the folk-song tradition of madness and death—there's still a lot to like, including a heartbreaking cover of The Louvin Brothers' "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," the new "Bluer Pastures," and the Eagles favorite "Seven Bridges Road," here turned into a workout for Parton's all-star backing band. With Little Sparrow, Parton's comeback/homecoming continues, even if it has less force behind it. Loretta Lynn's life has already been turned into a movie, but it's taken some sad turns since the time of Coal Miner's Daughter. In 1993, she lost her husband "Doo" after a long illness, and frequent singing partner Conway Twitty to a sudden aneurysm. Still Country is her first album of any kind since, and her first solo collection of new material since 1988. If it isn't quite a blazing return to form due to its workmanlike arrangements and uneven song selection, it still makes for a welcome addition to Lynn's catalog. The sense of loss that permeates the album makes it tough listening at times, but Lynn balances it with an equally strong sense of perseverance in "Country In My Genes" and "The Blues Ain't Workin' On Me." The album title is a superfluous touch: With Lynn, there's never been any reason to doubt where she's coming from, and it's good to have her back.

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