Parton’s ‘Smoky’ Sound
After 41 albums, you can’t blame Dolly Parton for wanting to broaden her horizons a little. But when a visit to her official web site reveals links to Dolly-approved amusement parks, restaurants and a record label, and no mention of her newly released album, “Blue Smoke,” you can’t help but wonder whether the country legend is still a musician first.
Thankfully, the 12 tracks of “Blue Smoke” — most of them, anyway — show that the 68-year-old Parton is still going strong. Intended as a bluegrass-heavy tribute to the Smoky Mountains of her native Tennessee, the album instead serves as a fairly mainstream, solid testament to both the current state of country music and its recent past. Unlike some of her senior peers, like Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson — both of whom she duets with on her new volume — Parton’s voice still sounds virtually unchanged from how it did decades ago.
Wrapped in a cover-art sketch that looks like someone airbrushed Parton’s 1965 face onto a head crowned by her 2014 hairdo, “Blue Smoke” hits the ground running with the title track, a spirited song that changes key, tempo and instrumentation several times. The song’s jarring start-stop format contrasts with its locomotive rhythm, as does its shifting between layered instrumentation and simple handclaps. It also is about as close as the record gets to the fun and campiness of a Dolly Parton concert.
In addition to paying homage to the music of her home state, “Blue Smoke” also acknowledges some of the songs that influenced Parton’s rise to fame half a century ago, including respectable takes on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and Southern standard “Banks of the Ohio,” the latter of which provides the perfect showcase for the quivering, vulnerable vocals that made songs like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” classics when they were released in the 1970s.
The innocence of Parton’s vocals also shines in “Miss You — Miss Me,” a hushed plea from a young girl for her divorcing parents to not forget about her as they sever ties with each other. The nervous vibrato in her plaintive tone is still as effective as it was when she sang “The Coat of Many Colors” from a similar perspective in 1971, and makes this track among the album’s best, despite the efforts of an overzealous mandolin player who would have been better suited playing this part on the bow of a Venetian gondola.
Parton’s silliness and refusal to take herself too seriously has been a key ingredient in her longevity, but also is responsible for the weaker moments of the album. “Love du Jour,” for instance, is Parton’s way of telling a field-playing suitor that she is more than just a booty call, but is derailed by lyrics like, “I am well aware of your good looks and sexy ways/ Serving up yourself to girls to satisfy your tastes/ The fresh catch of the day on your Romeo buffet.”
The album ends strong, though, thanks to its final two songs: “From Here to the Moon and Back,” her charming duet with Nelson that was first released on his “To All the Girls” album last year; and “Try,” which brings the album to an uplifting conclusion with its message of self-empowerment and persistence. Its lyrical message, vocals, and even its tempo bear more than a passing resemblance to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” but when Miley is your goddaughter, you’re allowed to borrow.
Recommended: Parton is able to hang onto fans she’s had for decades while appealing to new ones.“Blue Smoke” has something for everyone.