Dolly Parton – Halos and Horns

Dolly Parton
Halos and Horns

To end all the speculation that might be going through your head right now, let me get this out in the open and totally clarified: yes, Dolly Parton is worthy and deserving of coverage in an indie rock e-zine. For far too long now she seems to have been tossed off as some humongous-breasted blonde-wigged caricature who is only surviving on her “aww shucks” reputation and novelty status, when she happens to be one of the most genuinely gifted singers, songwriters, and musicians to emerge in the realm of popular music in the last 50 years. After all, when everyone from the White Stripes to Whitney Houston has covered your songs, you must be doing something right. And while there is no denying that she has made heartbreaking concessions to commerciality in her career, at heart, Dolly Parton is as close to the genuine roots of Appalachian folk music as you can get. Growing up in the Appalachian mountains in a house without electricity, saturated in the music and lifestyle that would enchant so many of the country’s original ethnomusicolists and folkies, one has to suspect that she knows a lot more about the true roots of American music that she has generally displayed in her music over the last 20 years. In short, if you dig Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, or Hank Williams records because of their “authenticity,” you better make room for Dolly because she’s veritably bursting with it.
Her third album in a trilogy of back-to-basics, stripped-down recordings, Halos and Horns is steeped in the traditions of American roots music yet doesn’t completely break free of some of the elements that have marred Parton’s recordings since she broke away from Porter Wagoner and found mainstream success. Although she’s always been known for having stronger singles than albums (which are usually packed with unnecessary filler), she has experienced quite an unexpected renaissance with a fairly straight bluegrass album (1999’s The Grass is Blue) and another largely acoustic one (2001’s Little Sparrow). The problem is, Parton seems hesitant to just go ahead and continue to make the kinds of albums that will attract hardcore folk and roots enthusiasts, instead tempering her material with apparent attempts to hold appeal to a wider audience. So, at best, the final results are a bit mixed.
Largely comprised of acoustic instruments, with mandolin, dobro, and banjo rising to the fore and dominating the mix, the album’s best tracks are truly exceptional. The title track, a classic gospel-tinged cut fits well beside the bluesy re-recording of “Shattered Image” and the folk-gospel strains of “John Daniel.” Even as her approach seems to be quite formulaic, when all those elements in the formula are perfectly balanced, tracks like the heartbreakingly earnest “Dagger Through the Heart” can be the result. Give her credit, she still writes the great majority of the tracks on her albums, not content to rely on the Nashville songwriting factory even though she does indulge in a few (albeit baffling) covers. Of those, Bread’s “If” is stripped to its foundation and given a slightly more rustic, pastoral pop veneer. A revamped rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” (with altered lyrics to present a more traditional Judeo-Christian bent approved by Page and Plant) doesn’t fair as well, as it probably just isn’t the type of song that makes a good candidate for a bluegrass makeover. Sadly, the elements seem to go awry somewhere in the mix just as often as they go right.
In light of September 11th, Parton seems to want to reach out and address the tragedy, giving us songs like the overblown “Hello God” (complete with swelling power ballad chorus and a soaring choir) and the similarly over-reaching “Raven Dove.” And while you never doubt her sincerity or honesty, as she always writes her songs in the common vernacular and in an entirely humble voice, the sentiments are just a bit too trite to stand on their own. When she goes for novelty, as on the downright obnoxious narrative of an outcast fortuneteller in “These Old Bones,” during which Dolly slips into a faux-old lady voice to deliver snippets of dialogue, the results are almost unbelievably misguided.
Overall, the majority of the tracks inhabit ground somewhere between the two extremes on the spectrum, making the album pretty average in the final estimate. Her melodies all seem to be vaguely familiar and you can probably name a few tracks that jump to mind that could have inspired parts of certain songs, but her voice, although she bends for cheap nostalgia and tired sentiments too often, is undeniably her own. But, if you happen to hold dear some crusty old recordings because they happen to have been marketed to you as genuine “folk” music, remember, Dolly is the kind of folk who lived the life described in those songs that hold so much anthropological meaning. (Although it is sort of sad that California-born Gillian Welch can play that role more convincingly than Dolly can anymore). I just wish she’d cozy up to another set of Appalachian standards and make an album any folk snob would love.