"That's because I'm going to basically sing a song with the same heart the first time," she notes. "I really play off the musicians and what I feel from them, and they do off of me as well, and it kind of meshes into something. I wouldn't dream of doing this kind of record without being there with everybody. In other styles of music, you can cut your tracks separately, but not this one; this is music of the heart, and I think the musicians need it, and I think the singer needs it from the musicians."
"So, on a lot of these songs, the scratch vocal is the one we kept because it was the one that had the most emotion; even if it wasn't necessarily the best technically, it was the best emotionally, and I always go for that. Steve Buckingham's great about that, and so is Gary Paczosa, the engineer, who's so helpful in so many ways. But they both believe in that as well, especially if you've got a good vocal; they'd rather work on cleaning up little flaws than take that whole vocal off because you won't feel it exactly the same way again."
It's not surprising that in talking about the album, Parton focusses on the songs themselves; after all, she's one of country music's most highly-regarded writers herself.
Indeed, one of the most interesting things about "Little Sparrow" is Parton's decision to revisit several of her previously-recorded numbers.
"'My Blue Tears' has always been one of my favorites," she says, "and I've recorded it two or three times. We even did it for the Trio album (with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris), but I don't think it ever came out. And Linda recorded it several years ago, and I sang with her on it on one of her albums ("Get Closer," 1982).
"But you know, there are just some songs that are your own favorites as a writer - like 'Down From Dover.' I just never thought that one had its fair shot because it was just lost on an album. It was the same with 'My Blue Tears,' and since I was also looking for that kind of Old World sound, mostly because of I wanted to have Altan on the album, I just thought 'oh, that'd be beautiful to do.' I just always thought it needed to be done slow because when I originally cut it it was a medium-tempo, kind of bluegrass thing. And I just thought 'Dover' needed a better shot, because I 'd always just loved that story, and I'd had to leave a verse out back years ago. I hated that, I always missed my verse, so I thought well, if nothing else, I'm going to do it just to put the pieces back together.
"As a writer, when you have to make cuts, you feel almost like you didn't explain the whole story. I remember back when I cut it, Porter Wagoner, who was producing, had said 'that's just too damn long, it's a good song but it's too damn long. You're going to have to cut something out of it.' And I just grieved over what I was going to have to take out, and now it's back Ð and I'm glad."
Other songs on the album come from even further back in Parton's career, like the durable gospel classic, "In The Sweet By And By."
"That is a song that I have always loved," she says. "Back in our old Pentecostal church, they'd always clap their hands and sing it kind of hard and straight, but being a writer and a person that loves words, ever since I was little, I always thought that song said the prettiest things. A couple of years ago, when we opened the Gospel Hall Of Fame at Dollywood, I did an album of old, old gospel songs, just to be sold at Dollywood. I was definitely going to do that song, and so I just started playing around with it, and I said to the musicians, 'let's slow that down, do it real, real slow and see how that sounds.'
"We started singing it, and it sounded so good that I thought it ought to be heard more, so I pulled it off that album. When we started working on this one, we were looking for melodies that had those long, beautiful chords that Altan would be able to play some of that Irish sound on, and I thought well, this one would fit that, and it sounds old anyway Ð and it is, that's an old public domain song Ð so I just picked it because I thought it laid wide open for that beautiful Irish sound that we could do. So, just like all these other songs that one came inspired: 'take me, take me, I'm the one, get me.' So I just kind of listened to my musical heart on it."
Similarly, on the distinctly modern "A Tender Lie" Ð a hit for Restless Heart just over a decade ago Ð Parton says she was grabbed first by the song, and only later conceived of the spare, restrained setting it gets on "Little Sparrow."
"When that song first came out, years ago, I was on my way to the office and when it started playing on the radio, I just cried my eyes out. I don't know why, it's just the way that the melody went, and just the way it said 'and how much more damage now, honestly?' It was the way they said 'honestly,' it's like, 'what could one tender lie do?' And then I thought, if I ever get the chance or have a reason to do that song, I'm going to do it. So, it just hit me that it would be beautiful done real acoustic and just real sweet and to have Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski sing on it because we sing so sweet together, and I'm crazy about Alison. Our voices blend so well. Doesn't that one just pull your heart out?"
"I brought all these songs to the album," Parton concludes. "I picked these personally, because they were personal favorites of mine. That's not to say that I won't do a full-blown bluegrass one next, because I may Ð I really love doing it Ð but I wanted to just go a little further with this album. Some of the stuff was kind of a shock, even to Steve, but everyone wound up loving it Ð and the musicians just got a kick out of getting to do something different."