46:43 min • Sony Masterworks • June 9, 2014
Nick Smith reviews
It’s hard to believe that this is Dolly Parton’s 42nd studio album. This enticing chanteuse has transcended many country music styles over the years – bluegrass, gospel and country-pop to name a few. Blue Smoke seeks not to overthrow Taylor Swift, but rather chooses a mixture of these styles. Whereas her solid, more recent offerings such as Little Sparrow and Backwoods Barbie have had a common style throughout, this time a few friends have joined proceedings.
Opening with a steady-rolling, bluegrass banjo, the title track could well be a ride at Dollywood with its choo-choo backdrop and rollercoaster ride lyrical landscape. It has a spectacularly broken down middle-eight and is perhaps the precursor to the story in the next track ‘Unlikely Angel’. This ballad is brimming with mandolin solace and showcases a dark hour for its protagonist.
Like a phoenix from the ash and dirt,
I rose up from the pain and hurt –
There is a wonderfully deep, honest and knowing feel to ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’, a duet with Kenny Rogers which has some canny lyrical touches.
Who’ll join in on those harmony parts, when I call your name?
There are some wonderful reduxes and duets on this album. Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ is a seemingly unlikely candidate, but forms a raucous, folky, gospel interpretation, replacing the lustful intention of the original with religious undertones that in other hands would be far less convincing or sincere. Traditional murder ballad ‘Banks Of The Ohio’ is wonderfully harmonised with Carl Jackson, and Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is given a compelling and heartfelt, folksy makeover. One of the album’s stand-outs is the achingly intimate “From Here To The Moon and Back” with Willie Nelson at his stripped-down finest and Parton harmonising beautifully.
Elsewhere, ‘If I Had Wings’ is the perfect soaring sister to the melancholy and folky Appalachian ‘Little Sparrow’ from 2001 and there is some welcome, light-hearted Dolly and a few chuckles on the downright tongue-in-cheeky ‘Lover Du Jour’.
Serving up yourself to girls to satisfy your taste,
The fresh catch of the day on your Romeo buffet,
Served up hot and ready, just having it your way –
‘Home’ is radio-friendly, country-pop at its best, but suffers perhaps at the hands of the more earnest and profound moments on the record.
Parton’s voice is on fine, solemn and heart-breaking form throughout and soars on the album’s closer ‘Try’ where our heroine seeks to motivate and empower those that have fallen on difficult times. There is no better or more genuine preacher than Parton.
Packaged with a greatest hits bonus disc, maybe seeking to capitalise on her forthcoming appearance at Glastonbury, Blue Smoke is not really a revelation, but rather a splendid continuation of this formidable woman’s talent, grace, wit and candour. Dolly Parton is truly a musician to behold and cherish.