When Dolly Parton began her association with the Nashville indie label Sugar Hill in 1999, she had little to prove. Long one of country music’s most prolific and intelligent songwriters, not to mention a chart-topper, a successful actress, and a slick businesswoman, she had already done it all. But, as with so many other country stars of the past, her records weren’t getting played on the radio. Rather than conform to the treacly tastes of mainstream Nashville, she decided to make records for herself, and the three acoustic, bluegrass-steeped projects she’s issued since–The Grass Is Blue (1999), Little Sparrow (2001), and the new Halos & Horns–are among her finest. She reveals her populist streak on the latest: none of the all-stars from the first two outings (including Alison Krauss, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile) are on it, and she uses members of her own working band along with some pro pickers who worked at her Dollywood theme park. They all do a fine job, but there’s not much they can do to stem the tides of sentiment that wash out a few of the songs. Parton seems to be reacting to the events of September 11 here–and to her credit she acknowledges the complexity of those events (unlike Toby Keith, who’s courting the lunkhead contingent these days with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”). In “Hello God” she admits that religion is frequently misused for personal gain, without naming any particular sects, and begs for forgiveness on behalf of humankind. Unfortunately the song then explodes in a mess of goopy gospel singing and sappy strings. She continues to cover unlikely songs; on Little Sparrow she did Collective Soul’s “Shine,” and this time out she tackles “Stairway to Heaven” (yes, the “Stairway to Heaven”). She succeeds in making the song over in her own image–no mean feat with an anthem as burned into the public’s brain as that one. Halos & Horns is the weakest of her Sugar Hill efforts, but Parton remains a fascinating icon and her voice is still a marvel. This sold-out show is part of her first tour in a decade. Saturday, August 17, 8:30 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Annie Leibovitz.