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New Yorkers aren't easily impressed. But here in the lobby of the swanky Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, a fur-clad matron speaks breathlessly into her cell phone. "You'll nevah guess who I just saw upstairs," she rasps. "Dolly PAW-ton!"
Obviously, even jaded city folk love Dolly.
A few minutes later, Dolly giggles at this story. New York City doesn't scare her one bit. "I like it here," she gushes. "I had an apartment here for 20 years. I'm comfortable anywhere, actually. I feel like I can fit anywhere."
She might just as well be talking about her music. After issuing pop, country and bluegrass collections over the last few years, her new album, Little Sparrow, on Sugar Hill Records, is a return to her mountain roots.
"I call this real mountain music," says Dolly, wearing a decidedly unmountainy, skintight black pantsuit. "It's more mountain than bluegrass. Actually I only did a couple of bluegrass things like the Louvin Brothers' 'I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby.' "
In addition to six Parton originals like the bouncy "Marry Me" and the mournful title tune, Dolly wandered into left field for some songs. "I did some things using bluegrass instruments, like 'I Get A Kick Out Of You,' the Frank Sinatra song," she says. "My husband, Carl, owns all kinds of records, and he really likes that song. The last time I heard it, I thought, 'I wonder how it would be if we did it up-tempo?' And people seem to already be taking to it."
Another off-the-wall choice was "Shine," a rock hit by the Atlanta alternative band Collective Soul. "My husband was playing a rock 'n' roll station in the car and that song came on," she recalls. "We both just looked at each other, and I said, 'I love that song.' So we stopped at Tower Records and bought it.
"I was thinking 'I'd love to record that,' but it had that really heavy guitar. So I thought, 'You know, that could be done really simple, using a mandolin at the beginning instead of a guitar.' And the song's melody is so beautiful for bluegrass harmonies."
A spiritual thread runs throughout Little Sparrow. Dolly included the gospel standard "In The Sweet By And By," with vocal help from Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of the Irish band Altan. "She's wonderful," says Dolly. "I wanted to have that Irish sound, and she loves singing like that. Someone in her family translated that part into Gaelic.
"I've been singing that song since I was a little kid," she continues. "I thought, 'That is really pretty. I wonder how it would be if we slowed it down?' It came out nice."
Dolly's latest album is only one of the many projects she's juggling. "I'm doing a remake of The Solid Gold Cadillac, the old Judy Holliday movie, this spring," she says. "Then I'm doing another TV movie, Heavens To Betsy. It's a story of mine that I've been trying to get going for years. It's a fun thing, a gospel musical."
Unfortunately, Dolly's joy while making her new album was tempered by the death of her father, Lee, in November. "It wasn't like we expected it," she says sadly. "He had a stroke and in two weeks he was dead. I've never known that kind of grief, because I had never lost a parent. We miss him so much.
"I dedicated the album to Daddy. I thought that was about the best thing I could do for him. He always used to call me his 'little songbird.' So this is the last thing I got to do for Daddy.
"He liked this album. He liked the old, simple songs." Suddenly, she lets out a laugh. "He used to say, 'You sing these songs better than anybody. I don't know why you wanna bother with that ol' rock 'n' roll stuff.' "
Dolly took his advice to heart.
"I thought, 'It's just time to do what's right, and it's time to do what I feel,' " she says.
"But there'll never be anything that I do as well as this music, that I love as much, or that comes out of me as real."