April  2002

Dolly Parton - Little Sparrow
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3927
Released: 2001

by David J Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Dolly Parton is not the first name you think of when it comes to bluegrass, but with two albums devoted to it in recent years -- The Grass Is Blue now followed by Little Sparrow  -- she is changing that. She is fortunate to have Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Chris Thile on mandolin, Jim Mills and Mike Snider on banjo, and several other fine bluegrass musicians helping her make it happen. Parton’s singing voice, long recognized as a powerful one in Nashville country music, lends original and honest expression to a wide range of songs on Little Sparrow.

Illustrating that range, the disc's first single is the rock tune "Shine" by Collective Soul. Cole Porter’s "I Get a Kick out of You," also rendered in bluegrass style, is a long way from Bill Monroe territory. Joined by contemporary-bluegrass giant Alison Krauss, who blends wonderfully with Parton and sings harmony on several other tracks as well, Parton sings this standard with appropriate lightness and humor, never sounding forced or contrived.

Parton’s own "Little Sparrow" is a tour de force that should make any experienced folksinger's, bluegrass performer's, or songwriter's mouth water. Based on the traditional "Fair and Tender Maidens," it returns to one of Parton's favorite themes -- false-hearted men -- and is reminiscent of her song "When Love Is New" featured in Songcatcher. "Little sparrow, little sparrow, precious fragile little thing/Little sparrow, little sparrow flies so high and feels no pain," Parton quietly sings by herself. Then the album’s fine band kicks in, in a minor key, as Parton continues, "All ye maidens heed my warnin’, never trust the hearts of men/They will crush you like a sparrow, leaving you to never win."

Several more the songs revisit that theme, and the CD even closes with the brief yet lingering instrumental "Reprise: Little Sparrow." However, "Marry Me," also written by Parton, conveys the joy of first love that prompts one to dance -- literally, through the use of a barn-dance rhythm and accompaniment by clog dancers Marcia Campbell & Bubba Richardson. Along with the title song, "My Blue Tears," and others, this song’s pithiness and deceptive complexity confirm Parton’s brilliance as a songwriter.

Then there’s Steve Young's beautiful "Seven Bridges Road." Parton imbues it with a passion that nicely conveys its love of place: "There are stars in the Southern sky Southward as you go/There is moonlight and moss in the trees down the Seven Bridges Road. … Sometimes there is a part of me/Has to turn from here and go/Runnin’ like a child from these warm stars down the Seven Bridges Road. … There is a taste of time sweet as honey, down the Seven Bridges Road."

Parton’s songs and those of the other writers featured on Little Sparrow offer a taste of bluegrass that's as sweet as honey.