By 1999, Dolly Parton had more than 30 studio albums to her credit though support from country radio had all but dried up following her last solo Number One (“Yellow Roses,” a decade earlier). Early in ’99, the second Trio record with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt was released, but Parton was also one of the artists left in the lurch when Decca Records closed its Nashville office. Still, by the fall she had filmed the TV movief Blue Valley Songbird and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
That October, Parton released her first LP for Sugar Hill Records, The Grass Is Blue. Although the title cleverly alluded to type of music the album contained, Parton’s choice of cover songs for the record was as eclectic as some of her more recent recording projects had been, with the East Tennessee native covering Southern rock band Blackfoot’s “Train, Train” and the Louvin Brothers’ classic, “Cash on the Barrelhead,” along with a chilling version of the traditional tune, “Silver Dagger.” But to kick off the record, Parton relied on an unlikely source, Bronx-born piano man Billy Joel.
Actually, “Travelin’ Prayer” — a follow-up single to Joel’s 1973 breakthrough hit “Piano Man” — didn’t need much revision when Parton cut it since the original tune featured Eric Weissberg on banjo, fresh from his contributions to the Deliverance soundtrack. Joel’s LP also featured musicians (and future country-music producers) Richard Bennett and Emery Gordy Jr. among the studio players and the same year Piano Man was released, bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs covered “Travelin’ Prayer.”
The timing of Parton’s version was the first element of what would become a perfect storm. Another was her choice of the young trio Nickel Creek to back her on the record. Their progressive take on the genre was introducing bluegrass to a more youthful audience, as was the music on the phenomenally successful soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou in 2000.
Parton, who hosted the ACM Awards early in 2000, obviously had her hands full, what with an opening monologue and a number of costume (and wig) changes during the show, so it’s probably not surprising that her acoustic performance of “Travelin’ Prayer” suffered a few technical issues. By the time she performed the song during the 2001 Grammys, the bugs had been worked out and she had even added a familiar guitar to the mix, with Brad Paisley popping up toward the end of the above clip for a short solo.
Although “Travelin’ Prayer” was nominated for a Best Female Country Performance Grammy in 2001, Parton lost to Faith Hill’s “Breathe.” The Grass Is Blue did, however, win for Best Bluegrass Album. The following year, another of her cover tunes — this time from an even more unlikely source, alternative rockers Collective Soul — would triumph at the Grammys when “Shine” won Parton her seventh Grammy and the album it was featured on, Little Sparrow earned another nod in the Best Bluegrass Album category (losing to Alison Krauss). Parton is currently tied with Bruce Springsteen for a total of 47 Grammy nominations, and in 2011 was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The singer also scored an Oscar nomination for “9 to 5” and earned a second Oscar mention for another travelin’ tune. In 2005, she wrote and recorded “Travelin’ Thru” for the film Transamerica, losing to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle and Flow.