Dolly Parton would love nothing more than to have a hit album on the country music charts. But given country radio's infatuation with singers young and marketable, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
So what does she do?
Bluegrass. "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill) is Parton's first full-length bluegrass album, and every track radiates a spirit of fierce independence. It's as if she's telling the industry: "If I can't beat you, then I might as well enjoy myself." And to judge from "The Grass Is Blue," Parton knows how to enjoy herself.
This album easily ranks with the best recordings of her career.
Surrounded by a stellar cast of musicians, including singer Alison Krauss, dobroist Jerry Douglas and mandolinist Sam Bush, she has recorded a superb collection of bluegrass standards, original bluegrass and reworked pop bluegrass for the sheer satisfaction of celebrating a bedrock music that has always inspired her.
Longtime fans won't be shocked with the results, since Parton has demonstrated her close affinity for bluegrass on other albums. Yet nothing Parton has previously recorded conveys the depth of her love as consistently or as convincingly as "The Grass Is Blue."
The album opens on a somewhat surprising note with "Travelin' Prayer," a little-known Billy Joel song that's the first of three performances featuring delightful close harmonies sung by Krauss and her Union Station band mate, Dan Tyminski. In fact, as appealing as Parton's vocals are, nearly all of the arrangements are enhanced by harmonies provided by the rotating cast of singers, which also includes Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Claire Lynch.
Some of the songs are amusing novelties worth reprising. The Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead," for example, seems perfectly suited to Parton's defiant, live-wire voice (at least after she rewrites the lyrics a tad). And the delight the singer takes in reviving Lester Flatt's suspicion-fueled lament "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open" is almost palpable.
Even so, it's the ballads--tender, poignant and tragic, by turns--that prove most memorable. Among the highlights are Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," rendered by Parton with a melancholy soulfulness that's beautifully sustained by Douglas and fiddler Stuart Duncan; Hazel Dickens's "A Few Old Memories," a heart-wrenching remembrance of faded love; and the Parton-arranged "Silver Dagger," the only traditional song on the album and a vivid reminder of the singer's Appalachian roots. Also included are four songs composed by Parton, including one of her best, the unresolved ballad "Will He Be Waiting for Me."
Bluegrass musicians have to develop such finely honed technique in these highly competitive days that precision sometime substitutes for spontaneity. Not here, though. For all the exacting musicianship evident on these tracks, there's a strong current of energy and emotion that brightens the up-tempo tunes and warms the ballads. Small wonder Parton sounds so much at home.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.
Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley
Although singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale and bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley have collaborated in the past, "I Feel Like Singing Today" (Rebel) marks their first entire album together. Best known for the hits he has composed for George Strait and Patty Loveless, the North Carolina-bred Lauderdale contributes several songs to the session, including "Joy, Joy, Joy," a bluegrass gospel tune co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The pair also wrote "I Will Wait for You," a tale of undying love delivered by Lauderdale with earnest conviction.
Still, it's Stanley's weathered voice and the unvarnished sound of the Clinch Mountain Boys that set the album's tone and direction. Not surprisingly, two of the album's treats, "Harbor of Love" and "Who Will Sing for Me," were composed by the late Carter Stanley, and the latter tune is perhaps the album's finest example of how Lauderdale's unaffected voice and Stanley's frayed but stirring harmonies complement each other. There's also a lot to be said for those moments on "Like Him" and "Who Thought the Railroad Wouldn't Last" when Stanley sings lead with a rare and haunting soulfulness.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.
Jim Lauderdale's 'Onward Through It All'
Lauderdale also has released "Onward Through It All" (RCA), an album that frequently reaffirms his strengths as a songwriter of buoyant country rock tunes ("You Just Know"), introspective ballads ("I Already Loved You") and blues-tinged novelties ("Calico"). Unfortunately, a collaboration with Hunter, the Dead lyricist, doesn't pay off this time--the inspirational "Trust (Guiding Star)" quickly falls flat--and the album's title track is similarly lifeless.
Since he's not a particularly distinctive vocalist, Lauderdale needs either a clever or an emotional song to leave a lasting impression. About half of the tunes on "Onward" serve him well, including a pair of infectious Southwestern romps ("Please Be San Antone" and "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This"), the brooding ballad "What I Want You to Say" and the lovesick burner "Still Not Out of the Woods." What's left over is almost always easy on the ears, but some of it is just as easy to forget.
To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.