Emmylou and Dolly 

Lost in the hullabaloo over space-age medical technology and increased life span are the answers to these frightening questions: What if all we get out of life in the triple digits is an exponential increase in geriatric drivers and assisted-living homes? What happens if the weight of hundred-year-long lives crushes any cultural contribution from our oldest and wisest?

Put these questions in a musical context, and the potential answers get even scarier. Given the unholy damage they’ve already wrought on contemporary culture, what, in God’s name, can we expect out of Britney Spears and the Back Street Boys by the time they earn a “Today” show birthday greeting? It’s enough to make one seriously consider the notion of forcibly assisted suicide.

Two artists that will not soon merit such mandatory treatment are—interestingly enough, given the genre’s domination by pop-schlock-spewing big-hairs just lookin’ for a hit—a couple of the grand dames of country music. Granted, neither Emmylou Harris nor Dolly Parton are past their prime just yet, but both of them have to check the rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of a mid-life crisis. As their latest releases demonstrate, however, they have both discovered some form of creative elixir that has them engaged in the most powerful and innovative music-making of their long and varied careers.

Harris’ stunning Red Dirt Girl is less of a surprise than Parton’s Little Sparrow, if only because its thematic and sonic links to her previous two albums, the 1995 studio masterpiece Wrecking Ball and 1998’s live Spyboy. Produced by aural genius Daniel Lanois—who shaped U2’s The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind and Peter Gabriel’s So, among others—Wrecking Ball successfully melded Harris’ soaring vocal tremolo and emotional range with Lanois’ trademark sonic washes filled with deep bass lines, stuttering percussion and searing guitar punctuation. Spyboy translated that musical sensibility into a live retrospective driven by Harris’ current touring band of the same name.

Red Dirt Girl’s direct links to Wrecking Ball include producer Malcolm Burn (a Lanois crony and musical everyman who plays on both albums) and bassist Daryl Johnson, who also anchors the Spyboy band. But while Red Dirt Girl is clearly a creative offspring of Wrecking Ball, the new album departs from its predecessor in both structure and feel.

To begin with, all but one of Red Dirt Girl’s songs were written by Harris, making the album an honest reflection of her considerable creative powers (Wrecking Ball featured many covers, including tunes penned by Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan). And though Lanois’ influence is obvious on the new album, Harris and Burn have taken his ambient lead and stuffed their creation with as much bottom-end reverb and deep tonality as possible. The result is a strangely gorgeous and compelling group of songs, held together by Harris’ vocals on the high end and by a stirring tempest of swirling grooves on the low end.

“I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now,” as sublime a song about physical/sexual obsession ever written, is a prime example of the elements that define Red Dirt Girl. Over a thumping, measured bass line (bass credits given here to both Johnson and Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cuniff) shot through with Burn’s and Cunniff’s guitar work, Harris fairly groans the following lines: “The devil is deep water baby/And I’m in way over my head/But I’d be drawn and quartered/If I could keep you in my bed.”

Songs like “Hour of Gold” show that Harris has retained a solid sense that, musically speaking, less can be more. Built around a spare structure of bass, mando cello and Fender Rhodes, the song is a showcase for Harris’s vocal range as she croons from baritone to soprano in a heartbeat.

It is Red Dirt Girl’s titular song, though, that really drives home the extent of Harris’ particular genius. Driven again by a low-end groove (bass, omnichord, bass pedals) and pierced by Buddy Miller’s sharp guitar, the song laments the fate of a small-town Alabama girl who gets swallowed by the depths of her own despair. But it’s a story more than a song, and the upbeat cadence of Harris’ vocals turns a somber eulogy into a celebration of a life.

While Little Sparrow doesn’t quite achieve the mastery of Red Dirt Girl, it is a damn fine album and well worth obtaining, two things I never thought I’d say about a Dolly Parton record. Following in the footsteps of Ricky Skaggs (who has recently cut several blistering bluegrass albums after a long servitude to the evil minions of pop country), Parton has surrounded herself with a phalanx of ripping pickers and sawers and made herself into a bluegrass chanteuse (Little Sparrow is actually the second consecutive bluegrass album from Parton).

Featuring Alison Kraus on harmony vocals, Jerry Douglas (best known as Kraus’ “best damn dobro player in the world”) on resophonic guitar, Jim Mills (of Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder) on banjo and Stuart Duncan (bluegrass everyman extraordinaire) on fiddle, Little Sparrow is filled with moments that genuinely crackle. Most of these moments come on the eclectic range of covers she has chosen (Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Seven Bridges Road” and most especially, a high-energy reading of Collective Soul’s “Shine”), but originals such as “Bluer Pastures” and “Marry Me” display a great sense of bluegrass timing.

Overall, Little Sparrow is a surprising testament to Parton’s craftsmanship and vocal chops, especially to those (like me) who thought the bulk of her talent resided in an area slightly lower than her brain and vocal cords.

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