On Tuesday (Jan. 23), just days after her 55th birthday, Dolly Parton releases Little Sparrow, in many ways one of the most personal albums of a distinguished musical career that has earned her membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The new work follows The Grass Is Blue, an acoustic bluegrass collection released in October 1999 and later voted Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Earlier this month, the disc was nominated for a Grammy in the bluegrass category and Parton received a second nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, for her bluegrass rendition of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer.”
Parton dedicates her new 14-track collection to her late father, Lee Parton, who died in November at age 79. He always called her his “little songbird,” she says during an interview at her Nashville office.
The songs for the album, Parton explains, came together in a great rush. Instead of swapping ideas back and forth with her producer, Steve Buckingham, she called him and said she had the album all mapped out.
“I just called Steve and said, ’OK, I’m ready. Are you ready?’ He said, ’Well I ain’t, but I’ll be ready.’ He shuffled his stuff around, and I had the time to do it. I just picked these songs based on stuff I loved. I always pray about getting the right vision for whatever I’m doing, even if it’s not stuff that really just folds the world over,” she says.
This time out, Parton’s vision includes covers of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” (“I thought it was kinda off the wall”) and Collective Soul’s “Shine,” both songs she heard when her husband, Carl Dean, played them around the house.
“I’m always hearing stuff,” she says, “and sometimes, when I’m thinking musically of what I’m going to do, something will just trigger, like a light bulb will go off.”
Little Sparrow also includes several new Parton originals — the title track, the haunting “Mountain Angel,” “Marry Me” (a lighthearted, uptempo number) and “Bluer Pastures.” Two songs — “My Blue Tears” and “Down From Dover” — are older gems from Parton’s catalog. The latter appears for the first time in its complete version, with a verse restored that was left out of the original recording.
She writes daily, Parton reveals, but she likes to go on writing binges two or three times a year. The new material comes from a particularly inspired stretch of writing that also yielded songs for The Grass Is Blue and for her 1998 release, Hungry Again, on the now-defunct Rising Tide label. She did her writing at the Parton family homeplace in East Tennessee, near Sevierville.
“I wrote 37 songs on that two-week binge, some of the best songs I’ve written in years,” she says. “They don’t always come like that. I was very inspired that time. If I’m lucky, if I get two or three weeks to write, I’ll write 20 or 30 songs.
“Now, they’re not all good,” she goes on to point out, “but I’ll get a few really good ones out of it. But those 37 that I wrote, they were pretty good. I’ll use them. I can make the most of them. They were not all real country, either. I just write what comes out.”
Over the course of her career, Parton has come up with quite a few good songs, among them “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” She joined the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, and last year she hosted the Academy of Country Music’s awards show and the Grand Ole Opry’s 75th anniversary celebration, both televised by CBS. Her acoustic outings represent a return to her roots, she says, but she shrugs off any suggestion that her recent honors and the passing of time have put her in a reflective mood over the last few years.
“I don’t think it came from that,” she says of her turn to the mix of bluegrass and Appalachian folk music, with Celtic overtones, she has dubbed “blue mountain music.” Parton leans forward and lowers her voice as if she’s about to make a confession. “Mostly it came from the fact that I couldn’t get a damn record played on the radio,” she says, “so you kind of explore.
“I didn’t have a label. I didn’t have any pressure on me whatsoever. [The honors] are all nice, but all that does is make me feel old … I just know that right now in my life this is the music I can do really good.”
To make that music the best it can be, Buckingham has surrounded Parton with top-rank acoustic musicians. Returning from the sessions for The Grass Is Blue are Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Stuart Duncan, Jim Mills and Bryan Sutton. Young mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek replaces Sam Bush on mandolin (and supplies a remarkably nimble intro for the Cole Porter tune). A stellar cast of vocalists adds harmonies including Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Maura O’Connell, Claire Lynch, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Carl Jackson and Sonya Isaacs. Members of Irish group Altan appear on several songs including a new arrangement of the traditional hymn “In the Sweet By and By.”
Parton has complete artistic freedom on the recordings, since she finances the sessions out of her own pocket, then leases the masters to Sugar Hill, an independent label specializing in acoustic and bluegrass music.
“If it makes money, fine,” she reasons. “If it just makes the money back, fine. And if it don’t, that’s still fine. I’ve always said that I’d work as a waitress to get enough money to go do my songs and then I’d sell ’em out of the back of my car if I had to.
“It’s almost like I had to get rich in order to afford to sing like I was poor, in order to sing the kind of music that I know ain’t gonna sell to any great extent,” she says, relishing the irony.
“I’m definitely not planning to get rich on this. I’m not doing this for money at all. For the first time in my life I don’t have to consider having to make a living, having to pay for a bus or having to pay for a band or buy costumes,” Parton adds. “I’m making a decent living doing some other things and so I can afford my music now. I can afford to just really do it for the art and the joy of it, and that’s a good feeling.”