Two of country music's leading ladies -- Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris -- are saluted this week by a host of today's biggest stars. Newcomer Josh Turner submits a strong debut, while folk favorite Patty Griffin shares her concert at the Ryman Auditorium. Crystal Gayle, Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson return to the racks, too.
A host of female pop and country stars pay tribute on Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton (Sugar Hill). Norah Jones and Joan Osborne submit beautiful renditions of "The Grass Is Blue" and "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," respectively, while newcomer Mindy Smith makes a notable introduction with "Jolene." Shania Twain provides an engaging acoustic reading of "Coat of Many Colors," sweetened by Alison Krauss & Union Station and Parton on harmonies.
Longtime friend and Trio collaborator Emmylou Harris offers lovely liner notes, as well as her 1978 hit "To Daddy." Melissa Etheridge's gruff version of "I Will Always Love You" sounds exactly like you'd expect. Other top-notch contributors include Kasey Chambers ("Little Sparrow"), Shelby Lynne ("The Seeker"), Allison Moorer ("Light of a Clear Blue Morning") and Parton, herself, with a strong, soulful take on the title track.
You won't find the words "A Tribute to Emmylou Harris" anywhere on Albert Lee's Heartbreak Hill, also on Sugar Hill. But that's exactly what this terrific album is. A five-time winner of Guitar Player magazine's best country guitar picker, Lee toured in Harris' Hot Band and covers 10 of his favorite tunes from her repertoire here. And dig these special guests -- Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Buddy Miller, Maura O'Connell and J.D. Souther on harmony, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley on electric guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Buddy Emmons on steel guitar and Jerry Douglas on Dobro. Again, Harris wrote the touching liner notes.
The last few months have brought a number of promising newcomers -- Jimmy Wayne, Dierks Bentley, Billy Currington and now Turner. A South Carolina native, Turner shows off his rich bass drawl throughout Long Black Train (MCA Nashville). The gospel-tinged title track (which he wrote) is climbing the country charts right now, and the vivid and romantic "Jacksonville" (which he co-wrote) has a good shot, too. Bobby Braddock contributes the album's final track, "The Difference Between a Woman and a Man" -- a common theme throughout this notable debut.
Folk favorite Griffin headlined Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for the first time in January, and the live album A Kiss in Time (ATO) is a fine souvenir of that performance. Eleven of the songs come from her first three albums, while the new "10 Million Miles" closes the album. A Kiss in Time also includes a DVD with the animated video for "Rain" and the director's cut of "Chief." Currently on a songwriters' tour with her kindred musical spirits Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams, Griffin is expected to release a new studio album early next year.
Country star-turned-torch singer Gayle wraps her stylish vocals around several American music standards -- such as "Cry Me a River," "Sentimental Journey" and "What'll I Do" -- for All My Tomorrows (Southpaw). Because many of these songs began on Broadway, Gayle takes Manhattan with a five-night engagement at the famed listening room Feinstein's, beginning Oct. 21.
Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, highlighted in CMT 40 Greatest Women of Country Music, returns with her first album in more than a decade. On Heart Trouble (CMH Records), Jackson tackles some new material and revisits several of her hits, including "Let's Have a Party." Backing is providing by an eclectic cast of Jackson's admirers, among them Dave Alvin, the Cramps, Rosie Flores and former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker. The album is highlighted by Jackson's duet with Elvis Costello on the Buck Owens classic, "Crying Time."
The Party Never Ends (Songs You Know From the Times You Don't Remember) recalls Robert Earl Keen's earliest crowd favorites, found on his Sugar Hill albums. Of course, "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Merry Christmas From the Family" are here but so are the odes to "Barbeque" and "Copenhagen." The 13-track compilation comes just one week after the release of his new studio album, Farm Fresh Onions (Audium/Koch).
And who can write a story about new releases without at least one mention of Willie Nelson? But this time, he's not just taking a verse on somebody else's record -- he's center stage with four reissues of classic albums. Previously unreleased performances and newly written liner notes can be found on all four of the following: Greatest Hits (And Some That Will Be) (1981), Always on My Mind (1982), Tougher Than Leather (1983) and his duet album with Merle Haggard, Pancho & Lefty (1983).