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Dolly Parton sings like a little sparrow

By Jon Weisberger, January 2001

It's 6 a.m. in California where Dolly Parton's calling from, but the Country Music Hall Of Famer sounds as bubbly as ever as she inquires about where her interviewer is. "I'm on Pacific Standard time, but I guess you're on Country Standard Time," she giggles, before settling into a conversation about "Little Sparrow," her second CD for Americana/bluegrass indie label Sugar Hill and the eagerly-awaited follow-up to last year's IBMA Bluegrass Album Of The Year, "The Grass Is Blue."

"I'm real proud of the album," she enthuses. "We started work on it almost right after 'The Grass Is Blue' came out because I felt like we needed to keep the momentum going. I didn't want to do a total bluegrass album, which would have been the most predictable thing to do, but I didn't want to get pigeonholed or Pigeon Forged in my case," she laughs, referring to her Tennessee home and the location of her amusement park, Dollywood.

"I didn't want people to think I was only going to do bluegrass because it was more about the acoustic stuff, more about me kind of going back to my roots.

"So, we just wanted to go ahead and do it while I had the momentum going, and I wanted to take it a step or two further. That's why we kind of added the Irish element with Altan, the group that I had used a few years ago on a live album we did out at Dollywood, called 'Heartsongs.' They're such sweet and wonderful people, and I just thought well, why don't we add some things that are more mountain? So, we're really not calling it bluegrass, we're calling it blue mountain music, like a cross between bluegrass and mountain. They called the Smokey Mountains down there 'blue,' and my brother Floyd wrote a song called "Blue Mountains" I'm probably going to record it on the next album and so that phrase fits more what we're doing now, I think."

Just as she says, 'Little Sparrow,' produced by long-time associate Steve Buckingham, is indeed a step or two beyond bluegrass but only so far; it's not a dramatic change, of course.

Most of the musicians from "The Grass Is Blue" reappear, including Jim Mills (banjo), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Barry Bales (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Jerry Douglas (dobro) with the substitution of youthful mandolin wizard Chris Thile for the veteran Sam Bush.

Singers Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Rhonda and Darrin Vincent, Claire Lynch and Keith Little are back again, too, but there are some new names as well not only Altan, but the multi-talented Carl Jackson, Sonya Isaacs and her sister, Becky Isaacs Bowman of The Isaacs (Parton sang on a track on Sonya's recent Lyric Street country debut), Maura O'Connell and new country vocalist Rebecca Lynn Howard.

The album reflects a similar mix of sources; like the previous one, it mixes old country and bluegrass songs, some left-field surprises Collective Soul's "Shine," Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and some of Parton's own creations, both old and ("My Blue Tears," "Down From Dover") and new ("Bluer Pastures," "Marry Me," "Mountain Angel" and the title track).

Though she wanted to do something new, Parton is also conscious of the way in which bluegrass and acoustic country music dictates a healthy degree of consistency.

"I feel that in order to sell this kind of heartfelt, gut-wrenching music, it's very important to be true to the music," she says. "I wouldn't want to just add one or two of these songs in with a solid country album, or a pop or rock album like I've done in the past. So, I'm always going to try to do one of these kind of albums at least once every 18 months to 2 years, where they're purer and narrow in their content especially the emotion and the sound and all acoustic. Even if I go ahead and do a solid country album, with drums and electric instruments, or do another pop album, or a dance record who knows? I've been out here long enough and done enough stuff that I feel like I can do whatever I'd probably need to be true to whatever that was. If I'm going to do a full dance record, it should be a dance record."

"But I just really love this music, it's really true to my background, to my heart, to my soul, so I think that I'm on to this now. This is what I used to do when I was doing 'Coat Of Many Colors' and 'Tennessee Mountain Home' and all those songs I used to write but I couldn't make a living at it. This is the best music there is, but there's no money in it. So back in the early days, I had to make that decision am I going to be just true to this music and make no money, or am I going to be a star, make money, be able to get rich so I can afford to sing like I'm poor? and that's what I did," she chuckles.

One of the most important things about "singing like I'm poor," she says, is working directly with the musicians.

As on "The Grass Is Blue," many of her performances on "Little Sparrow" are "scratch vocals," done as reference points for the pickers while laying down the instrumental tracks.

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