A look back at Dolly’s return to her bluegrass roots on the excellent The Grass Is Blue
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Dolly Parton. Of course, I’m sure that’s partially due to where I was raised — way, way down South — but if I’m really being honest, I think there’s just something about the inarguable queen of country music that people take a shine to.
The same was true in the 90s, when Parton found herself without a record label for the first time in thirty years, when Decca Records closed its doors and bid Nashville farewell. Parton had spent the decade losing ground with country radio, though her fanbase and record sales hardly showed any loss, and, by the time of the release of her thirty-fifth record, Hungry Again, Parton was showing a strong inclination to return to her musical roots.
With no label to tell her otherwise, Parton made two quick decisions: to release the Trio II record she, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1994 before label disputes and schedule conflicts shelved the project, and to record a bluegrass album rooted so deeply in the mountains of Tennessee that listeners almost had to dig it out of a cornfield in order to listen to it.
The Grass Is Blue was the result of that decision, born of the music of her childhood. “It’s perfectly natural for me to do a bluegrass album as I have loved that style of music all my life,” Parton said in a press release that announced the record in August 1999. “For years I have looked forward to doing a bluegrass album…this is one of the most exciting things I have done in years and one of the most exciting things ever.”
In preparation for the record, Parton teamed up with producer Steve Buckingham, who helped Parton make the decision after informing her that, when asked, bluegrass fans overwhelmingly expressed a desire to hear Parton make a bluegrass album. “We were both shocked,” Parton told Billboard, “but then I thought, since I manage myself now and have my own label and can do what I want, why not do it?”
The pair assembled a lineup that reads more like a roster of bluegrass’s finest musicians: Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss, and Rhonda Vincent. The band accompanied Parton on the thirteen tracks, featuring bluegrass songs from her childhood, “Silver Dagger,” a nineteenth-century ballad popularized by Joan Baez in the early 1960s, and Parton originals, like “Steady as the Rain,” which Parton wrote for her younger sister, Stella, and the album’s title track, “The Grass Is Blue.”
The lyricism and the band are unmatched, but it’s Parton’s voice that steals the show. Her signature vibrato sores, climbing mountains and dipping low down in the valleys, etching out a breathtaking mountain range. Jerry Douglas, who played dobro on the record, wrote that “Dolly’s performance brought this cream-of-the-crop band leaping to its feet,” and it’s enough to make me jump to attention as well. At times, it’s the wail of a woman done wrong, then the woeful whisper of a goodbye, then the raucous, down-home warble of an Appalachian girl, weaving a brilliantly textured tapestry as unique and captivating as Parton herself.
The Grass Is Blue was critically acclaimed, though it didn’t have the chart-topping performance of some of Parton’s previous releases. Nevertheless, in the two decades since the release of The Grass Is Blue, the album has been credited with rejuvenating Parton’s career and, along with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, welcoming bluegrass into households that had never witnessed the rugged outline of the Appalachian Mountains set against a sunrise or held a mountain-music instrument in their hands.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Parton has released forty-six solo albums to date, forty-one of which ranked in the top 10 on counter charts, and has had 25 songs reach Number 1 on the Billboard country music charts, a feat she shares only with Reba McEntire. Over five decades since the release of her solo debut record, Hello, I’m Dolly, one thing is crystal clear: Parton’s reign is as uncontested as the height of her platinum blonde hair.
AUDIO: Dolly Parton The Grass Is Blue (full album)