Ralph Stanley prefers to call his “Mountain Music” rather than bluegrass or country. This moniker also aptly describes the material on Dolly Parton’s new album. Halos and Horns, her third release on Sugar Hill, differs from her last two because it’s self-produced.
And instead of being populated by A-list session players, it features the musicians Dolly regularly tours with. Their musicianship, while still first-rate, is perhaps a bit more sensitive to the mood. Overall, the album has more of an old-time country string band feel and less of a revved up high-octane bluegrass edge.
Twelve of the 14 tunes are Parton originals, and the two covers are odd bedfellows. David Gates “If” originally recorded by Bread, shares space with the Led Zep epic “Stairway to Heaven.” Dolly makes both seem as if they were written for her. Her “Stairway to Heaven” will drive the original out of your brain after one listen. Her voice soars in a way Robert Plant’s never could.
Her own songs cover an equally wide array of moods and idioms. The title cut nails ’50s honky tonk, while “Shattered Image” boogies, driven by a bluesy dobro obligato. On the most “cinematic” song, “These Old Bones,” she uses two voices to represent the principal characters in the story. Her old crone voice is most effective. My favorite track, “Dagger Through the Heart,” features great double-stop mandolin work by Brent Truitt.
So much country music is merely repackaged pop-rock with fiddles and dobros instead of synthesizers and Marshall stacks. Real country – where feeling and emotion predominate, like on Halos and Horns – makes it clear that authentic country is not only more powerful, but more lasting than anything you’ll hear on country radio’s hit charts.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.