Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record label: Sony Masterworks
Genre(s): Country, Pop/Rock, Contemporary Country, Country-Folk, Country-Pop, Traditional Country
Before Dolly Parton was country music’s Mae West, she was a crystal-voiced songwriter who captured Appalachia’s tiniest moments like fireflies in a jar. On Blue Smoke, which straddles her amusement-park sexuality and austere mountain sense, Parton’s voice most captivates on her “Love Is Like A Butterfly”-invoking “Miss You-Miss Me” and the noir-ish, dobro-drenched “If I Had Wings. ” There are the grimace-inducing moments of quasi-calculation (the top-heavy adult contemporary Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and bawdy landmines of sexual charge (“Lover du Jour,” a quasi-cautionary throwdown), but mostly it is savvy recasting that defines Blue Smoke.
With an extensive discography that spans six decades, Dolly Parton at age 68 could have easily rested upon her laurels, but instead she chose to deliver her most beguiling work in years with her 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke. While her skills as a musician and multi-instrumentalist may often get overlooked, Parton’s acumen as a Grammy-winning songwriter is firmly intact and amply displayed throughout Blue Smoke’s 12 exquisite tracks. On her latest set, Parton not only dares to take on Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” making it her own by transforming it into a gospel-tinged anthem, but delivers an infectious version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” and teams up with friends Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Willie Nelson (“From Here to the Moon and Back”) with extraordinary results.
Dolly Parton is the Keith Richards of platitude abuse. On her 42nd album, Blue Smoke, the country legend mainlines one greeting-card sentiment after another, singing about angels, rainbows, moons, and fishing holes with reckless abandon. But the vividness and genuine conviction in that timeless, still-powerful voice finds the humanity in all of it, including a ballad about the benefits of trying hard and a cover of a Bon Jovi song about people touching each other.
Blue Smoke, Dolly Parton's 42nd studio album, does not try to make any grand lyrical or musical statements. It isn't an attempt to displace Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert from atop the country charts, nor is it one of Parton's critically lauded bluegrass excursions. It is an album of small pleasures, an eclectic collection of songs that showcases many of the qualities that have made the Tennessee singer such a vital force in country music for five decades.
The Blue Smoke comes rolling across the Smoky Mountains, the area of Tennessee that Dolly Parton calls home. She named her 42nd studio album after that smoke -- she also used it for the name of her 2014 tour of Australia and New Zealand, where this 2014 album first appeared (it saw stateside release later in the summer) -- and while it's not autobiographical, it certainly adds up to a tidy portrait of Parton in 2014. Unlike some of her new millennial albums, Blue Smoke doesn't specialize in one specific sound -- it is neither a bluegrass nor pop record but rather splits the difference, touching upon each sound, along with threading in other signatures like superstar duets with old friends (Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson both show up, singing songs that appear on their own 2013 albums) and splashy, silly covers of recent pop hits (this time, it's a version of Bon Jovi's "Lay Your Hands on Me").
Dolly Parton hasn’t really had a single as great as “I Will Always Love You” or “9 To 5” in a while, but some of her recent material, like 2008’s Backwoods Barbie and 2001’s Little Sparrow, has actually been solid. You can’t blame her for the fall off, considering her new LP, Blue Smoke, is her 42nd career full length. That kind of output would run anyone down.
Dolly Parton is an anomaly among her contemporaries in country music. Aging icons from Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson to the late Johnny Cash and Porter Wagoner have allowed producers to frame them in fresh and often stripped-down contexts. Parton has resisted that trend, eager and able to prove she remains relevant at 68 simply by being her irrepressible self.