With such quasi-mystical songs as “Down From Dover” and “Joshua,” and her gorgeous autobiographical classics such as “Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton the songwriter has sometimes been overshadowed by Dolly Parton the flamboyant performer and public persona. But make no mistake about it: this lady is one of the premier songwriters in the music pantheon.
And her songwriting stardust is all over her new album, Halos & Horns. Dolly, bless her heart, covers two of her favorite pop and rock songs here, Bread’s sticky “If” and the Led Zeppelin anthem “Stairway to Heaven,” with good results. But the real meat of Halos & Horns is her new compositions.
Oddly, until her last two albums (the mountain music CDs The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow), she was never really considered an album artist. After 1975’s superb, rootsy My Tennessee Mountain Home, Parton’s country albums were mainly collections of mismatched songs or endless greatest hits releases. Then she succumbed to the lure of pop music, with the result being years of uneven music.
Now, with her third roots album in a row, Parton has firmly re-established herself as a major country artist. Her original music — aptly dubbed “blue mountain music” — fits her like one of her skin-tight minidresses. Her new songs here are a glimpse inside the fervid Parton imagination, a wonderful Parton mix of fairy tales, stories of leaving, ethereal and evocative dirges about broken hearts, visions of apocalypse and rapture, a personal plea to God, childhood memories and vivid mountain folk tales. Backed by a tight group of bluegrass musicians, the Blue-niques, Parton sounds very much at home with a clutch of 14 songs close to her heart.
“Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash” she sings in “Shattered Image,” a song that pointedly takes aim at those who over the years have speculated and publicly gossiped about Parton’s private life. The title song finds Parton returning to a favorite theme — that of the duality of human nature, of the struggle between good and evil.
“These Old Bones” strikes me as an instant classic. At almost six minutes, it’s a mini-epic about a mountain witchy-woman who can divine the future, with Parton alternating as the witchy-woman and as narrator. The tale takes many turns and is just itching to be a movie. Similarly, “John Daniel” is a five-minute-plus saga about an itinerant holy man who appears in a mountain town.
With Halos & Horns and Little Sparrow and The Grass Is Blue, Parton has re-introduced country audiences to the lush world of the mountain music and folk tales of East Tennessee, a world earlier populated by the likes of the Carter Family, Roy Acuff and the Louvin Brothers. And she reminds the world that like other older artists discarded by Nashville’s major record labels as irrelevant — Johnny Cash , Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris are some names that come to mind — she continues to make country music that is fresh and vibrant and very much alive. In one of my early interviews with Parton for Rolling Stone, she told me that she felt she was a ” brave little soldier” and was unafraid in tackling new musical ventures. Obviously, she’s still being a brave little soldier.
(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo).