On Dolly’s album ‘Eagle When She Flies’ the sparrow of the title song was broken, small, defeated in comparison with the soaring majesty of the bird of prey. Here on her second full length bluegrass album Little Sparrow, the title track takes that idea further with the sparrow as a symbol of femininity, fragility, which men ‘crush’.
‘The sorrow never ends,’ Dolly sings with an understanding of the tragedy of a woman’s life. Musically this melody was adapted from an old folk song. Her voice is quietly hushed, the music a haunting tale of heartbreak. She has a confidence in her vision on these albums and with the help of the excellent band she realises it with stunning authenticity and immediacy.
The photos for this album were shot by Jim Harrington who recalls that Dolly wanted a ‘grittier…back-to-her-roots’ aesthetic. He shot the pictures in a cabin outside of Nashville, creating an eerie out of time kind of atmosphere. Dolly leans on the ‘blue’ of the genre here, singing a darker, more reflective take on the genre. In fact Dolly called the album ‘blue mountain music’.
Her version of Collective Soul’s Shine would win the Grammy for Best Bluegrass performance, perhaps for the audacity to turn an alternative rock song so country. The lyrics sound almost like a straight gospel song and so easily suit the switch to the old timey bluegrass style.
Dolly had heard the song on the radio in her car one day and connected with it so much she played it round her house, explaining: ‘It sounds spiritual and the melody lent itself well to some bluegrass harmonies’. Chris Thile from Nickel Creek plays mandolin on the song and the band appear in the video (the huge success of this band at the time again signalling a reason why these bluegrass albums were also a savvy commercial project for Dolly).
I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby is the old Louvin Brothers song about having a dream where you think your lover is cheating but it turns out they are just hanging around with their sibling. Dolly’s version is an old timey slice of fun.
My Blue Tears was recorded originally on Coat of Many Colors, as well as appearing on the Trio project. The sad tragedy of this song is that she’s so depressed she can’t even face hearing the bluebird’s song or the sun’s light. The mournful version of this song fits into the more sparse style of the album.
Dolly sings Seven Bridges Road at speed like she’s driving through the countryside trying to escape from something or someone. The song was originally written by Steve Young and was famously covered by The Eagles and Alan Jackson whose versions Dolly really uses as her bluegrass template.
The original Dolly song ‘Bluer Pastures’ turns the idea of ‘greener pastures’ into a song about realising your mistakes and regretting youthful foolishness. This is a nice addition to her repertoire of songs about the joy of returning home again, with added celebration of the music of her past.
A Tender Lie is as sweet and soft as the damaged lyrics suggest. Here the harmony vocals of Alison Krauss are particularly beautiful. Dolly’s incomparable backing band get a moment in the spotlight too on her version of ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’.
Mountain Angel has Dolly’s voice as perfect as ever, telling the story of a girl who has been abandoned by her lover and now runs mad through the hills, where people call her a witch. On ‘Marry Me’ Dolly seems to tell the story of what happened to the girl before she ended up the Appalachian Miss Havisham.
It’s a natural choice then to sing a new version of Down from Dover, linking to the unwed women seduced in the two previous songs. This new version adds back in the original verse, to a song Dolly felt never got its ‘fair shot’. Porter famously told her that song was too long, that it wouldn’t get on the radio and so she cut it. In the end his savvy advice about the commercial potential of Dolly’s songwriting did push her into writing some of the best songs of her career, even if it was at the expense of the darker elements of her songwriting.
The Beautiful Lie has a little bluebird in the heart of the song, flying away with a gorgeous Celtic tone. The song melts into In the Sweet By and By, a slower, gentler, more poignant version compared to the one she recorded for Precious Memories. The Celtic connection continues with the Irish band Altan featuring on this track, they also played on Heartsongs, her live album recorded at Dollywood.
Taking the simplicity of the mountains as her inspiration, focusing on delivering excellent songs while working with some of the best musicians in the genre makes this one another knockout in Dolly’s discography. The broken wing soars.
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/
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