It's been so long that most people no longer remember, but once upon a time, Dolly Parton was one of country music's genuine treasures, a songwriter able to pour her personal experiences into tunes that more than earned their sentimentality. "Coat of Many Colors" and "Jolene" are two of the finest C&W compositions of the '70s, and other samples from Parton's catalogue nearly reach those heights. But by the middle of that decade, she'd gotten hooked on showbiz, and, figuratively at least, that was pretty much all she wrote. As her arrangements became more pop-oriented and her image glitzier, her insights all but deserted her.
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The Grass Is Blue, in which Dolly says hello to many of the stars of bluegrass, doesn't entirely reverse this equation: She penned just four of the thirteen songs on hand, and only one of them is better than average. But the removal of major-label expectations has freed up her best instincts. Her singing is purer and more heartfelt than it's been in ages, matching the spareness and subtlety of the production. Moreover, the players are first-rate -- mandolinist Sam Bush and dobro player Jerry Douglas deserve extra praise -- and the material is generally well-chosen, with only Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer" [270K aiff] sticking out like the commercial concession it is. Parton makes spritely work of the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead" [254K aiff] and Lester Flatt's buoyant "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open," and draws every drop of drama and pathos from the public-domain chestnut "Silver Dagger." But her best moments come on the title track [240K aiff], the most memorable of her new compositions. A deliberate evocation of love lost, the tune enlivens its traditional imagery via an injection of irony -- "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" -- that Parton handles with a throbbing delicacy.
Such subtlety doesn't go far in the C&W marketplace anymore, so don't expect to hear The Grass Is Blue on hot-country radio between the newest shlock by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. But the album will likely come as a revelation to listeners who'd dismissed Parton as that busty curiosity who used to make awful music with Kenny Rogers. Welcome back, Miss Parton. We missed you while you were gone.