Until the Gucci arrival of Shania Twain, Dolly Parton was country glamour. Yet Parton debuted as a mountain singer-songwriter, working with the great and equally rustic Porter Wagoner. On recent recordings like Trio II, with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, Parton has gone home, but not with the curled-tongue abandon she brings to The Grass Is Blue, where she re-tackles bluegrass, country and traditional songs with brio. First covering Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer,” Parton moves into funky stuff like the Louvin Brothers’ classic “Cash on the Barrelhead” as well as horror folk like “Silver Dagger,” which sounds like something Sissy Spacek might have sung — not as Loretta Lynn but as Carrie. “I’m perfectly fine/And I don’t miss you,” she swears with pure heartbreak and composure on the title track. “The sky is green/And the grass is blue.” Not all of The Grass Is Blue flies that high, but it leaves the earth often.
No less imprisoned by roots-music orthodoxies than Parton, Alan Jackson has been Nineties Nashville’s smartest and sanest classicist; his music symbolizes his audience’s love of bright new thrills and soulful old records. It’s those old records that Jackson lavishes attention on throughout Under the Influence, a group of twelve vintage tunes that comprise a collection of what he calls “just songs that I like.” They range from fluid (Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top”) to scary (Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party”) to romantic (George Jones’ magisterial “Once You’ve Had the Best”) and hit the outright magnificent with Hank Williams Jr.’s “The Blues Man.” On that song, Jackson creates a new masterpiece of late-Elvis size and intensity, before he ends the record with a confident rendition of, yes, Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
In his notes, Jackson says he admires Buffett for doing “what he wants to do.” That’s also true of Alan Jackson and Dolly Parton. Without that almost punk-style independence, you can’t have new legends, country or otherwise.