CD Stock Number: Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3946
Ralph Stanley, the voice behind the Klu Klux Klanner singing "Oh Death" on the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, calls his music Mountain Music rather than Bluegrass or Country. This moniker also aptly describes the material on Dolly Parton's new album. Her third release on Sugar Hill, Halos and Horns differs from her last two because it is self-produced. 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 of the songs than one-shot hired guns. 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 fourteen tunes on the album are Parton originals. The two covers are odd bedfellows. David gates "If" originally recorded by Bread, shares space with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's epic "Stairway to Heaven." Dolly makes both these selections seem as if they were written especially for her. Her version of "Stairway to Heaven" will drive the original out of your brain after one listening. Her voice soars in a way Robert Plant's never could. Her own songs cover an equally wide array of moods and musical idioms. The title cut "Halos and Horns" nails that honky tonk old time '50's country mood, while "Shattered Image" boogies, driven by a bluesy dobro obbligato. On the most "cinematic" song "These Old Bones" she uses two different voices to represent the principal characters in the story. Her old crone voice is most effective. My favorite album selection, "Dagger Through the Heart" features some great double-stop mandolin work by Brent Truitt.
Even without the assistance of Steven Buckingham, who produced her first two Sugar Hill albums, Halos and Horns has all the polish of a full-budget major-label project. You'd never suspect that it began as a bunch of demo sessions. Recording engineer Danny Brown at Southern Sound in Knoxville Tennessee, abetted by mastering engineer Seva at Soundcrurrent Mastering, turned out truly top-shelf sound.
So much Country music is merely re-packaged 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 top ten hit charts.