Dolly Parton’s *Little Sparrow* is significant not just because she’s a great singer – it’s hard to deny the heart-seeking quality of that quavering vibrato – but because the album confronts a singular problem head-on. Where does an artist, much of whose career has revolved around the construction of a narrative of ‘rootsiness’, go after nearly 40 years at the top of a sophisticated musical tree? In this case, it’s back to basics. *Little Sparrow* is an acoustic album, accomplished with an aching brevity. There’s nothing forced about its understated title track or the beautiful ‘A Tender Lie’ and Parton’s band – mandolins, fiddles and some fine harmony vocals from Alison Krauss – exhibit the right balance of swing and sensitivity.
Parton does not address the big themes of life – this album dwells on the personal and specific. ‘Down from Dover’ is a no-frills, no-judgment song about a young mother, unwed and abandoned, that unfolds with a brutal simplicity. Her bluegrass version of Cole Porter’s ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ is fun, a piece of froth. But the real stuff, like her arrangement of the traditional ‘In the Sweet By and By’, provides moments to cherish.