This is the story of Dolly Parton resurrecting a career that had stalled on two fronts: country radio wasn't playing records by her generation of artists anymore, and the mainstream records she was cutting in the late '80s and early '90s simply weren't very good. A self-described caricature of womanhood, she was becoming what she had once joked about. When her long-time producer Steve Buckingham queried her about cutting a bluegrass record, Parton leaped at the opportunity. Joined by an elite group of super pickers - Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Jim Mills and Barry Bales - Parton wrote some original tunes that were her best efforts in years, then filled out the album with covers ranging from Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer" to the Louvin Brothers' "Cash On the Barrelhead" to Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," and re-arranged the public domain number "Silver Dagger" into one of the most dramatic moments in her entire recording career. Released in 1999, The Grass Is Blue
won a Grammy and was also named Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Two years later she assembled the same band minus Sam Bush (who was on tour) but lost nary a step by replacing him with 19-year-old Nickel Creek wunderkind Chris Thile, and released Little Sparrow,
another deserved Grammy winner. Cognizant of the great bluegrass artists being catholic in their choice of material, this time she plucked "Shine" from Collective Soul; revisited the Louvins' legacy via "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"; and tipped her hat to the Great American pop songbook via a swinging treatment of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," which kicks off with a sprightly couple of rounds of instrumental give-and-take between Thile (mandolin), Douglas (resophonic guitar) and Duncan (fiddle) before Parton enters with an airy, frolicsome vocal. The arrangements were more expansive and bolder in scope, and she brought in a wealth of guest vocalists, including Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, and Maura O'Connell. For the third installment of her bluegrass trifecta, 2002's Halos & Horns,
she crept every so slightly beyond bluegrass stylings to incorporate folk and traditional country elements into her approach, and penned 12 of the album's 14 tracks. In addition to a credible version of Bread's "If," she delivered a ballyhooed treatment of Led Zep's "Stairway to Heaven" (a song upon which she had built one of her earlier hits, "We Used To"), which evolves from a stately, measured folk song with mystical strains to a boisterous, ad-libbed coda featuring a gospel choir in full, emotive splendor. But her own songs - the most personal she had written for any of the three Sugar Hill albums - were rich narratives that inspired her most impassioned performances. As a supplement to these three albums, the box set includes a feature-packed DVD containing both videos and music tracks. The videos include a clip of her moving CMA Awards show performance with Norah Jones on "The Grass Is Blue"; the music offers five new song mixes (three of them instrumentals, plus two new vocal mixes of "Seven Bridges Road" and "Travelin' Prayer") and two outstanding cuts from the Dolly tribute album, Just Because I'm a Woman
: Kasey Chambers' woozy, foreboding take on "Little Sparrow" and Sinead O'Connor's shattering evocation of rising fury in the face of ultimate betrayal, "Dagger Through the Heart." Essential background is supplied by Steve Buckingham's notes on the history behind the album projects' conception and execution, buttressed by Stephanie Zacharek's thoughtful critical appraisal of Parton's journey. It's hard to believe there weren't some interesting unreleased tracks from these sessions or that the DVD couldn't have included, say, an in-depth interview with the savvy Parton about her art and her career arc. Nevertheless, this body of work collected in one place makes for one potent box set, and at that, an appropriate tribute to a great artist who challenged herself to dig deep, then climbed all the way back to the top from near-irrelevance.