Dolly Parton hasn’t been played on FM since country radio mattered, to give you an idea of how long it’s been. But when God (or Capitol) closes a door, He (or Epitaph) opens a little window.
Since her 1999 signing to Sugar Hill — and you can keep your smartass comments to yourself, buddy — Dolly Parton’s been rediscovering her bluegrass and mountain-music roots, and it’s been a pure delight to hear. Halos & Horns continues in the old-time vein of The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow, down to the odd choice of grassed-up cover material, here (brace yourself) “Stairway to Heaven.” Though unavoidably bizarre the first time through, repeated listening softens the shock, revealing that Dolly did find an inroad to the song’s spiritual center.
In fact, Halos & Horns is, as its title suggests, a spiritual record. But gospel it ain’t, and some of the songs here are outright unsettling in their frankness. “Hello God,” written after 9/11, indulges in neither easy jingoism nor empty mooing; rather, it presents Dolly in a crisis of faith, questioning the very temperament of God, if He does in fact exist. Considering the general makeup of Parton’s listening audience, that’s a huge artistic risk. But of the recent (and historical) spate of “commemorative” songs, I can’t think of one so honestly and humanly insecure. It’s a powerful moment.
But most of the songs on Dolly’s new record deliver a vibe of barely suppressed joy. “Sugar Hill” is a reminiscence of mischievous youth straight from the Appalachian songbook, which the label ought to think about putting on its answering machine. The hilarious family epic “These Old Bones” finds her playing the roles of mother and daughter, culminating in a rollicking duet at the song’s end. And occasionally, as on “Dagger Through the Heart,” Dolly manages to blend bluegrass’ senior aesthetics with a sort of seedy, modern-day-Nashville poetry.
Such moments show that Dolly Parton isn’t living in her past, though she’s mining it. But given the awful state of modern country, turning back might be the only way to move forward.
E-mail Eric Waggoner at firstname.lastname@example.org.