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.