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The Boston Phoenix Hello Dolly

Parton's bluegrass excursion

By Grant Alden

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  The first lines of the Billy Joel song opening Dolly Parton's latest offering, The Grass Is Blue, reveal more about the singer than anything she's recorded in two decades: she still cares, and deeply. "Travelin' Prayer" is an astounding performance, rippling with risk and sheer, soaring exuberance. Her supporting band, the finest hired guns in all of bluegrass, drive the tempo, and the singer two-steps over the edge of comfort. Parton's still-girlish voice hurtles past that crisp, gorgeous din, rising high, hard, and unburnished, reaching a little hoarsely for notes she hasn't time to dwell upon, seizing on words of loneliness and longing that ought to be meaningless to a woman of her ageless beauty and wealth.

The performance is louder and more emotionally direct than anything rock and roll has offered since the early part of this decade, and many of the 12 other tracks on the album are its equal. This from a woman who will turn 54 in January and who was recently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame -- both signs, in today's youth-conscious market, that the country establishment expects your best work to be long behind you.

Dolly Parton's music is, alas, not what she is principally known for. She became one of the richest women in show business by cunningly fashioning her Smoky Mountain Marilyn Monroe caricature into pop, movie, and tabloid stardom. (She is known backstage as the Iron Butterfly.) It is no accident that Parton was the star Shania Twain most wanted to meet after winning the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, inasmuch as three decades ago Parton's breasts blazed the trail Twain's bellybutton has followed. (And lest one fall prey to charges of objectifying women, please remember that both Parton and Twain have adroitly managed their own packaging, thank you.)

All that glitz has long obscured, perhaps intentionally, a prodigious talent and an artist of singular gifts. Parton has written songs for the ages -- "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors," "I Will Always Love You" -- and she sings them with a beautiful, one-of-a-kind voice. And as The Grass Is Blue makes evident, she's lost nothing, save the ear of Music Row. Which I presume is how her first full-blown bluegrass album ended up on the indie label Sugar Hill: the Sugar Hill folks asked, and, anyway, bluegrass is as noncommercial as jazz these days. Recorded quickly, after the filming of a made-for-Lifetime movie based on Parton's "Blue Valley Songbird," The Grass Is Blue conveys all the hunger and yearning missing from the well-fed suburbs that country radio now caters to.

Hunger. Of course we want to end hunger, poverty, the evils of humankind. But if we cease to want, we will have nothing. Born to poverty, Dolly Parton wants everything, still wants everything, still wants it badly enough to share some unguarded corner of herself with the strangers in her audience. Her last album was called Hungry Again, after all, and it, too, was a good 'un.

Parton's backing outfit isn't properly a band but an assortment of superb pickers: Sam Bush (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Brian Sutton (guitar), Jim Mills (banjo), and Barry Bales (bass). They may not be household names, but in the highly competitive world of bluegrass, they are among the best of the best. Of course they know one another, and of course they knit together into a powerful and polished ensemble. Harmony vocals are provided by Alison Krauss, Claire Lynch, Patty Loveless, and a clutch of other stellar singers.

Beyond "Travelin' Prayer," a minor 1973 hit for Billy Joel in the wake of "Piano Man," Parton's song selection ranges all over country's storehouse of classics. She blazes through the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead," turns Lester Flatt's "I'm Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open" into a full-throttle screamer, and gives a generous, tender reading to Johnny Bond's "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight," a song she began singing as a child on Knoxville radio. The album ends with a swinging, a cappella gospel number, sister Rachel Parton Dennison's "I Am Ready." Parton adds four of her own compositions, including the title track, written, she says, on lunch break during filming.

The Grass Is Blue hints at a minor trend. Whereas most songs being released to country radio are as devoid of country stylings (banjo, fiddle, steel guitar) as possible, Parton is at least the fourth mainstream artist (Ricky Skaggs, Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale) to release an exceptional bluegrass album in the last year or so. Bluegrass is a small, insular world, but its fans are devoted. A network of independent labels, summer festivals, and public-radio shows (along with the magazines Bluegrass Unlimited and Bluegrass Now) provide aid and comfort to a deeply rooted community whose passions have escaped the flames of big business.

Parton seems unlikely to rededicate herself to bluegrass, and this album is doubtless a minor event in her professional career. Oddly, that's the point.

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