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‘Little Sparrow’: The Beating Heart of Dolly Parton’s Bluegrass Trilogy

On the personal history and musical DNA of the second release from Vinyl Me, Parton

On April 20, 2023

The turn of the millennium marked a period of change for Dolly Parton. Having bounced around various labels, like the now-defunct Rising Tide Records, during the ‘90s, Parton found a temporary home with famed bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records, a move that gave her a chance to revisit her earliest musical roots through a landmark trilogy of bluegrass and mountain music-inspired albums: 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, 2001’s Little Sparrow and 2002’s Halos & Horns

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That trilogy marks one of many high points of the country legend’s ever-changing career, at the time reminding audiences that — for all her glitz and glam — Parton was still a mountain girl at heart. Through a carefully curated collection of covers and original songs, Parton reasserted her own artistry, a continuation of the ambitious, career-redefining work she’d done on 1998’s Hungry Again, which she released upon the dissolution of Rising Tide, as well as 1999’s Trio II, the follow-up to her beloved 1987 collaborative album with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, Trio.

The second of the bluegrass trilogy, Little Sparrow remains a fan favorite among Parton’s deep and dynamic discography. Where The Grass Is Blue adhered more strictly to the confines of traditional bluegrass music, Little Sparrow expanded upon that sound to make space for roots, gospel and folk music, coming together for what Parton, in a 2001 interview with the blog Country Standard Time, dubbed “mountain music.” The resulting LP is warm and intimate, balancing traditional songs (“In the Sweet By and By”) with unexpected covers, like Parton’s Grammy-winning take on the 1993 Collective Soul alternative rock hit “Shine,” which won Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. Parton’s voice, which sounds as fine as ever on Little Sparrow, is the LP’s unifying force, with her agile, versatile vocal finding connection points between even the most disparate tracks.

Some of bluegrass and roots music’s finest players join Parton on Little Sparrow, many of whom also contributed to The Grass Is Blue. Bluegrass luminaries like Jerry Douglas (guitar), Alison Krauss (harmony vocals), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Dan Tyminski (harmony vocals) and Rhonda Vincent (harmony vocals) all pitch in, as does a then-up-and-coming Chris Thile, who lends his virtuosic mandolin playing in place of Sam Bush. That all-star roster is testament to Parton’s star power, to be sure, but also to her seemingly endless ambition, a quality that here finds her committed to creating authentic mountain music true to her own roots. 

Little Sparrow opens with the title track, a Parton original that pairs a narrative lyric with an almost moody vocal, reminiscent, especially, of the work of Tyminski, whose career-defining work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack just a year earlier had partially inspired a commercial renaissance for roots music. If “Shine” hadn’t dominated alt and grunge radio less than a decade earlier, it could have sounded like another Parton original, with its gospel-adjacent message and harmony-laden hook. Parton’s take on Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” complete with an extended instrumental intro, is another unexpected delight. Earlier Parton songs like 1970’s “Down from Dover” and 1971’s “My Blue Tears” appear, too, in acoustic form, further establishing the album’s celebration of her roots.

Parton’s signing to Sugar Hill Records was something of a happy accident. Following the closure of Decca’s Nashville office in 1999, which once again left her without a label home, Parton reconnected with longtime collaborator Steve Buckingham, who had recently begun working with Sugar Hill and asked Parton if she would ever do a bluegrass album. It was the perfect time for Parton to take a creative gamble, and a few months later she found herself — with Buckingham as producer — in the studio working on what would become The Grass Is Blue

Little Sparrow came as another Sugar Hill act, Nickel Creek, began its meteoric rise to roots fame, with the trio appearing in the music video for “Shine,” on which Thile plays mandolin. Fresh off the release of their Alison Krauss-produced self-titled Sugar Hill debut, Nickel Creek would shortly be part of a roots music renaissance, one that no doubt benefitted from Parton’s own focus on the music that raised her. The album was also released at a time when music journalism seemingly couldn’t publish anything about Parton without referencing her appearance: The supposedly serious outlet the Guardian, for example, referenced her “pinched waist” and “billowing cleavage” in the first paragraph of its Little Sparrow review. It’s the former of those two anecdotes that has come to matter in the long run, as Parton left her own singular mark on a musical movement that is still growing strong two decades later. 

Parton would close the trilogy with Halos & Horns, another Grammy-nominated LP that focuses more heavily on her own songwriting. Little Sparrow, then, is something like the trilogy’s beating heart, finding a middle ground between the more traditional material of its predecessor and the focus on songwriting of its follow-up. Like fellow landmark Parton albums Coat of Many Colors and JoleneLittle Sparrow offers a glimpse at Parton’s storied personal history as well as her rich musical DNA, and is yet another endlessly listenable piece of evidence proving her artistry transcends time or genre.

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Brittney McKenna

Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.

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