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Here she comes again

For most people, Dolly Parton is known exclusively for two very big things – her boobs.

Okay, maybe you’re familiar with Parton’s co-starring role in the 1980s chick flick 9 to 5, the hit single of the same name she contributed to the soundtrack or for one of her 1980s pop hits such as “Islands in the Stream” (with Kenny Rogers) and “Here You Come Again.”

And that’s unfortunate. Because prior to becoming merely an implant icon and peddling maudlin light-rock ballads in the ’80s, Parton was the preeminent female singer/songwriter in country music during the 1970s. Self-penned classics from this period include “Coat of Many Colors,” “To Daddy,” “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” – yes, the same song that sold zillions of copies when Whitney Houston sang it in the 1990s.

Early in her career, Parton’s first break came as a duet partner with established Nashville star Porter Wagoner. Within a couple of years, Parton emerged from his shadow to experience even greater success as a solo artist thanks to heart-warming tales concerning the upbringing she enjoyed in her humble “Tennessee Mountain Home.”

As the 1970s drew to an end, however, Parton began recording more outside material, and her sound drifted from hardcore country to slick country and then to pure pop and soft rock. Of course, it was during her “fluff” years that she became an international star and successful entrepreneur (Dolly World is one of the largest theme parks in Tennessee).

By the mid-1990s, though, Parton had fallen from the limelight, and her music began to return to her country roots.

In 1999, Parton signed to the small indie label Sugar Hill and brought it all back home with a bona fide bluegrass album, appropriately titled The Grass Is Blue. The disc featured premium session players (Jerry Douglass, Sam Bush), marquee guest vocalists (Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss) and rock tunes, such as Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” and Blackfoot’s “Train, Train.” The above mentioned were effectively recast as banjo, dobro and high, lonesome vocal-intensive bluegrass numbers. There were also folk and country covers included along with four self-penned originals. The album, Parton’s pre-O Brother foray into old-timey music, was a triumph and won the 52-year-old (yes, it’s true) performer a much-deserved Grammy.

Parton reteamed with the same producer (Steve Buckingham) for the similar sounding 2001 release, Little Sparrow. Like its predecessor, the album featured many of the same ace musicians and inspired reworkings of rock songs, such as Collective Soul’s “Shine” and country classics, such as The Louvin Brothers’ “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and the Cole Porter standard “I Get a Kick Out of You” (which is just as effective when countrified with Parton’s gooey twang as it is when given the Sinatra treatment). Perhaps an even more rewarding album than its celebrated predecessor, the seven Parton originals on Little Sparrow fit seamlessly with the covers and show traces of Parton’s songwriting muse of the 1970s.

On Halos and Horns, Parton’s latest, which was released Tuesday, Parton handles the production reigns herself and opts to use her new touring band, dubbed the Blue-niques, rather than name pickers. Of the 14 tracks on the disc, all are Parton originals save two: “If,” originally recorded by Bread and a retooling of the holy grail of heavy metal – “Stairway to Heaven.” Parton actually pulls off covering the latter by reworking it as a straightforward, cautionary gospel tale.

Parton shines on cuts such as the title track, which discusses the fine balance Christians try to maintain between sin and redemption. The next two songs also hit their mark: the tender, woeful “Not for Me” and the exuburant ode to childhood romance, “Sugar Hill.” About midday, though, the album sags. On “Hello God,” wherein Parton offers an open prayer to the almighty, things go awry with a bombastic chorus that all but obliterates any emotion in the tune. This is followed by Parton’s less-than-inviting interpretation of Bread’s bland original, “If.” Just around the corner, is “These Old Bones,” in which Parton sings half the song in the annoying voice of an old mountain woman. The remaining seven songs on the disc are all strong, especially the rollicking, girl-power kiss-off “I’m Gone,” the emotive “What A Heartache” and “Dagger Through the Heart” (very few performers communicate being lovesick as well as Parton).

In all, Halos and Horns is a notch or two below Parton’s previous two albums, thanks to the unnecessary addition of several clunkers to a disc already boasting at least 10 choice tracks. Nevertheless, Halos and Horns offers a balmy spin and is a strong installment in Parton’s recent series of contemporary bluegrass albums – if only someone would have told her to leave a couple on the cutting room floor, it would be considered another Parton classic.