Little Sparrow (Sugar Hill)

Dolly Parton 

Little Sparrow (Sugar Hill)

Dolly Parton is probably the most significant figure in modern country music. Her story traces both the music's deep Southern roots and its crossover dreams, and as for singer-songwriters of emotional complexity and cultural significance, only Merle Haggard can touch her. That should be old news, but what makes it worth repeating is that Parton's making some of the finest music of her career. Two years ago she released The Grass Is Blue, a bluegrass-focused affair that was very nearly the equal of such early '70s classics as Coat of Many Colors and My Tennessee Mountain Home. Now she's released Little Sparrow, as good an album as she's ever made.

On strictly musical terms, the new album is close kin to her last. She's hooked up with the same lineup of stellar folk and bluegrass musicians, augmented this time out by the Irish band Altan; she turns once again to the Louvin Brothers songbook ("I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"); and she quickens the country heart of yet another AOR staple (last time it was Blackfoot's "Train, Train," this time it's Collective Soul's "Shine"). But Little Sparrow is more thematically unified than its predecessor. In the opening title track, Parton declares All ye maidens heed my warning, never trust the hearts of men/They will crush you like a sparrow. Then she sings that story's cruelest chapters from ever-shifting perspectives: confident new love (the old-timey "Marry Me"), betrayal (the haunting, Celtic-inflected remake of her "Down From Dover"), its fatal consequences ("Mountain Angel") and its sweet relief ("In the Sweet Bye And Bye").

I am in no mood for to hear your sad song, she sings delicately in "My Blue Tears," the most melancholy tune on an album filled with harrowing tales of loss. Yet at each turn, Parton's dulcet cries reveal other stories as well. Like small fluttering birds, these lives of which she sings are all the more precious for being so fragile.

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