Halos & Horns
(Sugar Hill 3946)
Sugar Hill Records
by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
In his book Lost Highway, critic Peter Guralnick draws attention to a certain incongruity in roots music. A number of country artists had lived on farms and the songs they sang reflected that experience. Their audience, often from the South or rural America, shared that experience. Fame, however, also gave singers a way to escape from rural life. Once they had made it, they spent their time traveling, recording, and signing autographs, not milking cows or shucking corn. But even after becoming rich, Alabama sang 40 Hour Week without blinking.
Unless music is made in the home or perhaps locally, there will always be a commercial angle. Hopefully, there will also be an artistic one. In many ways Dolly Parton's choice to re-enter the roots idiom seemed an odd one. She'd been a country star and even had crossover hits, but her career, it seems, had fallen on hard times. But country music, as anyone who didn't just start listening to it ten years ago knows, has changed. The hat acts and cover girls are in, the "from the country" gals and gents, out. So Parton's move proved doubly astute: she could retrench by digging deeper into her own musical heritage, and she could reap the windfall of the recent roots revival. Three years after The Grass Is Blue, Parton has established herself once again as a critical and commercial success.
Perhaps her most ambitious of the three albums Parton has cut for Sugar Hill, Halos & Horns crafts a hybrid bluegrass out of traditional and contemporary styles. A number of catchy pieces, like the title track and Shatter My Image, could have easily fit on The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow. But certain elements, like gospel background vocals and the occasional use of drums, create a heavier production than her previous two efforts. Parton also ignores the traditional canon and pens most of the material herself. Halos & Horns," however, never goes as far in the direction of pop as Alison Krauss' New Favorite.
The two songs that will probably stick out most to anyone with the least familiarity with '70s rock and pop are Bread's If and Led Zeppelin's - yes, Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven. On these cuts it's doubtful that the term "roots" can be referred to at all, unless one was talking about "the roots of classic rock." If begins much like the original before shifting into a high-stepping bluegrass number, and works very well until Parton expressively reads a half of stanza near the end of the song. The fiddle replaces the original flute on Stairway to Heaven, and while this version is respectful of its source, it seems, in many ways, much more produced than Led Zeppelin's. This is especially true at the song's climax, which sounds like something Elvis and a gospel choir might have cooked up during a late night session.
The one thing that never changes much, whether Parton is singing pop or bluegrass, is her trilling voice. It's one of the most identifiable voices in popular music, and, when she sang songs like Jolene and Coat of Many Colors, one capable of pulling on the old heartstrings. While the material on Halos & Horns may lack the same emotional resonance, Parton's vocal ability doesn't seem to have changed one iota.
The more progressive colorings of Halos & Horns may bother fans of the first two albums, but overall, these changes will probably broaden Parton's audience. Parton, like Merle Haggard, has probably not milked a cow or drank homebrew from a wooden cup in years, but most listeners will not care. While Parton may retain her older fan base, a new, middle class audience has also latched onto the roots phenomena. Even purists will have to admit that she records strong material and surrounds herself with the best musicians. Halos & Horns chalks up another triumph for the new, rootsier Dolly Parton, while also showing her intent to keep on growing.
Copyright 2002, Peterborough Folk Music Society. This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.