Dolly Parton
Bluegrass Now
December 1999
Dolly Goes Bluegrass
By Jon Weisberger

      She strides across the stage, microphone in hand, and takes her place at the center, the sequins on her blue dress flashing in the spotlights.  The band—Barry Bales, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss, Jim Mills, Bryan Sutton and Chris Thile—launches into a hard-driving bluegrass beat and Dolly Parton is off and running, debuting a selection from her new bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue, before a television audience of millions at the Country Music Association's annual awards show, where she has just been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
      Parton has never been one to do things in a half-hearted fashion, and in "going bluegrass" she's made no exception.  The Grass Is Blue is an astonishing collection, not only because of the world-class material and talent (Bales, Douglas, Duncan, Krauss, Mills, and Sutton as well as Sam Bush, Rhonda and Darrin Vincent, Dan Tymminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Louis Nunley and Patty Loveless), but because of how it came to me.
      "I had never really given thought to doing a full bluegrass album," she says, "I guess it had passed through my mind lightly, but I'd never really said, 'Well, I'm going to do it.'  The way this album came about, Steve Buckingham, who produced so many of my albums, and I had dinner one night when we were both in Los Angeles for business, and he told me about a survey of some sort in which people were asked who they would most like to hear do a bluegrass album.  'And do you know what the results were?' he said.  'Dolly Parton, ten to one—people wanted to hear Dolly Parton do a bluegrass album.'  I said, 'Well, let's just do one.'"
      Though she hadn't seriously considered the idea before, it's not really a surprising one.  Despite the immense success she's had in pop music and in Hollywood, Parton's roots in the Tennessee hills still lie close to the surface, and bluegrass music has run like a thread through her career from her 1950s childhood appearances to her first solo Top 10 hit, "Muleskinner Blues"—"Bill Monroe loved it," she says.  "He used to invite me out to sing it with him when we were on the same shows"—to her use of Bob and Sonny Osborne's harmonies on her 9 To 5 and Odd Jobs album to 1994's Heartsongs, which featured many of bluegrass's top artists.
      As a child, I was always around music, and all of my people played fiddles, mandolins, banjos and guitars.  So every kid in every family was used to having those just laying around.  I was especially in love with the sound of the banjo, and I had an uncle who played it, and there was an old man who lived up the road—I wrote the song "Applejack" about him—who showed me how to play.  And actually, if I don't have these artificial fingernails on, I can play the banjo, that old clawhammer style.  When I was little, I could really get a move on it.
      "We pretty much defined our music as just mountain music," she continued, "but when I started singing on radio and television in Knoxville, they had bluegrass people like Jim & Jesse and the Brewster Brothers on there, and they sang those bluegrass, high lonesome harmonies.  So I was always around it, and I always knew the difference, in that there was always a definite thing in the groups that considered themselves bluegrass—there was a purity to it.  The bluegrass harmonies are just so different from the country ones, unless you've grown up with them both."
      Still, it wasn't this year, when she parted ways with her most recent major label, that Parton felt she really had the freedom to pursue inspirations like Buckingham's proposal.
      "I'm not tied up to a record label, I don't have to do anything, I don't have to try to be commercial or please a record label or radio," Parton explained.  "I'm not trying to write to please anybody but myself.  I could find a label, but I don't want to; now I can do things project by project.  I can do this bluegrass album—and I hope to do more of them—and I can do a project with Boy George and Culture Club, too.  This is freedom, and I've lived long enough to earn it, and I guess deserve it—and I'm going to claim it whether I deserve it or not," she laughs.
      The Grass Is Blue—she calls it "the purest thing that I've ever done, truly inspired"—makes good use of that freedom, and it may be part of what accounts for how rapidly it moved from idea to finished product.
      "This was a charmed and blessed project, almost a spiritual experience for me," she explained.  "The musicians that Steve put together are the very best of the best, and they had such a great respect for each other.  When I would go to the studio during the day and hear them play, it was like going to the world's greatest concert.  I would get emotional just from hearing them on the headphones.  It moved my soul.  We were all getting off on this thing.  It was just magical, like going on a spiritual journey with this music."
      "It was fun," guitarist Bryan Sutton agrees.  "It was a magical kind of thing.  There are artists you run across every once in a while where as soon as they open their mouths to sing the song is there, there's no question about what ought to be there, what ought not to be there.  We did the whole record in two days.  Everything was pretty much live."
      In fact, Parton says, many of the vocals on the finished product were sung with the musicians as they recorded.  Frequently, even in bluegrass, these "scratch" vocal tracks are replaced later, but between Parton's usual preference for early takes and the spirit that was in the room during the recording of The Grass Is Blue, the stage was set for an unusually spontaneous collection.
      "We had so many classic songs," said Parton, "and I've been singing them all my life, and, of course, the musicians have been playing them all their lives.  And I sang them with such conviction and love and respect, because I knew the songs so well, and I would think of who had recorded them, and who had written them, and how I had heard them when I was a child.  So all we had to do was just go into the studio and do it.  I just sang from my heart."
      A healthy portion of the album consists of songs familiar to many bluegrass fans, whether they originated in the style ("I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open") or were brought into it from country by earlier bluegrass artists ("I Wonder Where You Are Tonight," "I Still Miss Someone"), but there are songs from Parton, too ("I wrote 'Steady As The Rain' for my sister Stella, but I wrote it on the banjo, that's why it has that steady rolling sound"), as well as a couple of left-field choices, including Blackfoot's "Train, Train," the song she performed on the CMA Awards show.  In the hands of Dolly Parton and her all-star friends, though, all of them are given a sound that is both unmistakably bluegrass and uniquely Parton's.  Her voice is, after all, one of the most recognizable in any field of music, and it still carries the accents of her Tennessee mountain home.
      "All I can do is sing my feelings," she says.  "I love bluegrass, I've always loved it, and I always will love it.  It just speaks to my soul."