Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.
The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.
The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.
Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.
The Grass Is Blue is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.