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NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

Dolly Parton The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye)

It’s easy to take someone like Dolly Parton for granted. Diminutive in size but always larger than life in the public eye, Parton’s status as a cultural icon has never wavered, but her musical focus has often been too pop-influenced over the past two decades. In her graduation from backwoods country singer to international media star, some would argue that Parton lost touch with what made her great in the first place.

Apparently, no one is more aware of this fact than Parton herself, who made a tremendous step back to her roots with last year’s true country record, Hungry Again. This time around, she takes a giant step forward with the first true bluegrass album she’s ever made, The Grass Is Blue.

Hot on the heels of her well-deserved induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and self-produced TV-movie for the Lifetime Network, Blue Valley Songbird, The Grass Is Blue stands out as a testament to Parton’s musical heritage. Here is a woman fully in charge of her career (the CD is a collaboration between Sugar Hill Records and Parton’s Blue Eye Records) and at the peak of her interpretative power.

Throughout The Grass Is Blue, Parton is ably supported by the finest bluegrass session masters currently alive, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Sam Bush on mandolin.

But more importantly, the musicians show their admiration for the East Tennessee songbird with the high lonesome voice, Miss Dolly Parton. She’s never sounded better, and The Grass Is Blue marks a triumphant return to form. The song selection is inspired, with four Parton originals (and one Parton arrangement of a public domain title, “Silver Dagger”) among the baker’s-dozen tracks. After all, this is the country gal who wrote such lingering classics as “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene,” “Tennessee Mountain Home,” and the most devastating unwed mother song of all time, “Down to Dover.”

The covers are magnificent as well, with winsome takes on some obvious choices (the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead,” Flatt and Scruggs’ “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”) and some clever non-bluegrass surprises taken out to the country.

The Grass Is Blue restores Dolly Parton to the forefront of country performers who are unwilling (and likely unable) to rest on their laurels. If you only know Dolly Parton as the little lady with the big voice (ha, bet you thought I would grope for a more obvious physical attribute) and her own amusement park, then you’re in for a big and long-overdue surprise. — David D. Duncan

XTC Homespun: The Apple Venus Volume One Home Demos (TVT)

This CD is decidedly raw and unpolished, a half-baked, semi-produced affair exhibiting the proverbial “warts and all” prominently. Which is, of course, the whole point of the album’s existence as a commercially available release.

Homespun: The Apple Venus Volume One Home Demos is just that; an interesting collection of pre-production versions of the wonderful Beatles-style songs that would eventually comprise Apple Venus Volume One.

If you don’t know Apple Venus Volume One, or at least a few of the other terrific albums crafted by these British pop geniuses (these days down to the nuclear two — Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding), I urge you to do a little homework before checking into Homespun. For those who are wise to the beauty, casual profundity, and pervasive insight of Apple Venus, Homespun should serve nicely as a companion piece. Nicely? That famous Brit understatement thing must be kicking in beneath my notice. Let’s put it this way: If all of our favorite CDs were accompanied by a similar “the making of” type of audio documentation, it would be … cool as hell!

The relatively modest Homespun CD/ancillary product includes an extensive standard-format booklet that affords us bonus glimpses into Partridge’s and Moulding’s processes, replete with scratchy work-in-progress lyric sheets and appended artist self-evaluations. A fairly representative excerpt of the latter might be Partridge’s ruminations on his motivation for writing the virulent “Your Dictionary.” Goes something like this: “I tried and tried not to write a divorce song; I really did, you have to believe me. The last thing I wanted was to come over as a grieved cattle bum crying into his beer … or even worse, as Phil Collins.”

Trust me, Phil Collins has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this. — Stephen Grimstead

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