‘I had to get rich so I could sing like I was poor,’ Dolly famously joked about ‘The Grass is Blue’ released in 1999. While Dolly had the mountains in her veins and her voice from the start, there was always a sprinkling of razzle dazzle pop rhinestones on her country banjo. Traditional bluegrass may have influenced her songwriting but this would be her first full length embrace of the genre, earning a Grammy for ‘Best Bluegrass Album’.
Not one to do anything by halves Dolly assembled a legendary line up of musicians including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales with Allison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals. The sleevenotes to the album are full of praise from these masters, with Douglas writing:
“Dolly Parton is the consummate musician. As we passed through each song, Dolly’s performance brought this cream of the crop band leaping to its feet. I consider it an honour to have been part of this project and see its culmination to be a momentous shot in the arm for Bluegrass music.”
Prior to this album Dolly had recorded bluegrass songs like Muleskinner Blues, and had also seen much success with the Trio project, so she knew there was potential in an album of old classics that were close to her heart and roots.
‘I knew all these songs from when I was ten years old,’ she said. ‘I know this music.’
And as a familiar fiddle plays us into Travelin Prayer the song becomes a hoe down as fast and furious as any live bluegrass band you’ll ever hear. Dolly’s voice keeps up with the pace and the power of the musicians with ease. Weirdly enough this is actually a Billy Joel song but Dolly makes it sound like it’s been played in the mountains for centuries. A breathless, beautiful start.
Cash on the Barrelhead slows the pace, takes us to the jail house and lets Dolly have some serious fun on the wrong side of the tracks. The band sounds so good the Louvin brothers themselves would be proud.
On A Few Old Memories Dolly’s voice conveys emotional longing for ‘another place and time’. Nostalgia never sounded so pure, so true. This choice of song, by Hazel Dickens is another example of Dolly supporting female songwriters, something she has done across her whole career.
I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open is another genre classic sung with such gusto that no wonder the band were in awe of Dolly’s work.
She also uses this trio of albums opportunity to re-record some of her own self-penned songs with such a cracking bluegrass band, starting with the brilliant Steady As The Rain, which was originally written for her sister Stella. The pace of the song works perfectly in the new old fashioned style and it feels like she’s rescued it from its seventies production hell. Or maybe every song sounds better the bluegrass way?
I Still Miss Someone is sung slowly with tender regret, sounding achingly gorgeous. Dolly has sung many covers in her career (maybe too many) but the bluegrass sound really creates a distinct magic in this version. Endless Stream of Tears is a Dolly original, this time a song about how miserable she is, sung to an upbeat bluegrass beat.
Silver Dagger is a traditional old time folk song now a classic bluegrass number. Dolly sings it with a soft, ghostlike tone which suits its haunting lyrics about a mother protecting her daughter from unwanted male advances. Train Train really lets the band fly and proves this kind of virtuoso playing will never go out of fashion. I Wonder Where You Are Tonight is another stunning heartbreaker, that just reminds you how special it is to hear Dolly with a band this good.
Will He Be Waiting For Me was originally released on her 1971 album Touch Your Woman. Dolly has so many songs which work in this genre you feel she could have easily done what Sturgill did recently and re-record entire old albums in the bluegrass style.
After immersing herself in the genre Dolly couldn’t help but be inspired to write something of her own and she delivers one of the best songs of her career in the title track The Grass is Blue. Lyrically I don’t think she has ever played with language as effectively and beautifully as she does here, offering us a list of impossible opposites to show just how heartbroken she is. Rivers flow backwards/ valleys are high/ mountains are level/ Truth is a lie/ I’m perfectly fine and I don’t miss you / the sky is green and the grass is blue. Pure poetry.
The genius of the artist is that while she can sing cover songs better than anyone, that alone isn’t enough to elevate you to legend status – it is in the songwriting where Dolly earns her plaudits and her place in music history. To me that’s why the trend of modern co-writing is something which will always dilute your artistry to some extent and allow for doubts to creep in – only by composing alone can you show the world exactly what your talent is and be judged accordingly. Dolly’s songs win out against anyone’s.
The album finishes with the a capella gospel stunner I Am Ready where Dolly sounds as angelic and heavenly as she ever has. Spine tingling stuff.
While not as successful as the similar O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, released around the same time, Dolly’s foray into bluegrass would be the start of a new era for her while also aiding the continued revival of the genre. Overall this is easily one of the best albums of her career.
I am working on reviewing all of Dolly Parton’s solo albums in order. Here is a link to a list of the albums I have reviewed so far: https://highwayqueens.com/2021/03/03/dolly-partons-discography-album-reviews-list/