On this edition of The Library, we take a look at a modern Bluegrass song that doesn't rely on the updated instrumentation of the Newgrass and fusion movements. I know that country, in particular Bluegrass, is not a genre for everyone. What people think of when they see the word "Bluegrass" is an antiquated form. It's banjo, mandolin, fiddle, maybe a guitar, and a folksy vocal. Personally, I love it. Even the stuff that creaks from age engages me. This style typically has great harmonies and particularly strong singers. When you're working in a genre that is all about variations on common themes told through musicianship, you can afford to make sure you have the best musician you can get for every part.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Dolly Parton began to experiment with this traditional country form. She did some truly amazing things with it. Her voice and candid lyrics were a perfect match. Plus, with all her years working in the recorded music industry, she had access to the best of the best acoustic musicians to work with.
I believe the essential Dolly Parton Bluegrass track is "Little Sparrow." I knew I was listening to something special in the opening a cappella section of the song. Parton sings "little sparrow, little sparrow/precious fragile little thing," by herself. Then, back-up singers join her first a fourth, then a minor third above her melody. It's a somber start to a warning song.
All ye maidens hede my warning Never trust the hearts of men They will crush you like a sparrow Leaving you to never mend They will vow to always love you Swear no love but yours will do Then they'll leave you for another Break your little heart in two
While the sparrow becomes a symbol for the heartbreak, it also is quickly transformed into an icon of hope. "Little sparrow, little sparrow/flies so high and feels no pain." While there is an element of escapism in this message, the core of it is honest and positive. If a tiny little bird like that can be strong and stay away from trouble, why can't a woman?
The second verse is almost a revenge fantasy from Dolly Parton, going into what she would do if she could become the little sparrow. It's a funny and then dark spin on the theme of the song. Why wouldn't she want to find out why this man she's writing about hurt her? Why wouldn't she "look into his lying eyes" and ask why? Because she can't.
I am not a little sparrow I am just the broken dream Of a cold false-hearted lover And his evil cunning scheme
She can't live her life chasing after a lost love. No one can. It's not productive and not worth it. You just need to pick yourself back up and guard yourself in the future.
The arrangement stays out of the way of Parton's vocal, adding a sense of movement to the song when the bird imagery is at its fullest. It's a simple arrangement that works wonders. I don't know if I would quite call this song an anthem, but the arrangement at the chorus feels anthemic.
Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" can be downloaded at all the major music services. Will you be adding this modern Bluegrass gem to your collection?