Though Dolly Parton has been unsparing in discussing her displeasure with the country-music establishment -- going so far as to board up her Nashville office and send her official fan club packing -- her biggest musical nemesis has always dwelled within. A singer of awesome power and a songwriter with that effortless classic touch, Parton has also been an incorrigible purveyor of bad taste, wasting years on nonsensical disco, pop, soft rock and vaguely countryish records.
But on 1998's great Hungry Again, she returned to country music with a vengeance, then followed up with The Grass Is Blue, riding straight bluegrass like a streamlined train. Little Sparrow is a sweeter, more ethereal sequel to that acoustic outing, with Parton lighting on Irish music and Appalachian folk and somehow making it all cohere in contemporary terms. Her voice, as sensual as it is aggrieved, brings the lush sounds of some of the best pickers on the planet into a fragile balance between the spirit and the flesh. Sometimes the results are bit too delicate: Remove the Dobro and mandolin from the breathy "A Tender Lie," and you have Americana Bread.
Yet on the whole, Parton's vision of folk themes and sounds is refreshed and original. She makes the Collective Soul tune "Shine" her own, tangling gospel supplication with a Dobro-and-fiddle climax as wild and free as anything Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan have every played. The title track continues Parton's obsession with the old murder ballad "Silver Dagger," which is a further obsession with the folk mandala "Fair and Tender Ladies" -- those well-worn sources fuse into something wholly new, wholly Dolly. Parton isn't just making up for lost time; once again, she's making a claim on music that pays no heed to time at all.