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. What makes records like Little Sparrow, Backwoods Barbie, and (thankfully) Blue Smoke soar, though, is that they’re imbued with bluegrass melodies, instruments, and heart, making them seem like actual products of Parton’s brain rather than radio-savvy grabs at staying commercially viable.
That’s a cynical look at Parton’s career, especially considering Parton probably doesn’t have a cynical bone in her body. But soulful, down-home records like Smoke just feel like they’re coming from Parton’s big, countrified heart. After all, she grew up in a one-room cabin in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, one of 12 Parton kids who learned music to get over being dirt poor. At shows even now, she’ll pick up a bedazzled autoharp and use her lengthy talons to pluck out a traditional hymn or folk ditty.
That simple feeling of a warm home is woven all through Blue Smoke, with Parton embracing not only bluegrass instruments, but also the melancholy sadness sometimes present in the plucky genre. While the title track is a bit hokey, with its “choo-choo” train sounds and theme park-styled lyrics, it segues right into “Unlikely Angel,” a mandolin-laced ballad about how Parton—or whoever Parton’s playing in this song—“rose up from the pain and hurt,” “like a phoenix / From the ash and dirt.” That song, while admittedly a bit schlocky, moves perfectly into a surprisingly soulful folksy version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” with shuffling country drums and intimate vocals. Later, Parton takes on “Banks Of The Ohio,” a 19th-century murder ballad that’s been covered a number of times by the likes of Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe, to name a few. The tale of a man who asks a woman to marry him but then murders her when she rejects him, “Banks Of The Ohio” is macabre fodder for anyone, but Parton’s lilting vocals and overlaid harmonies manage to make the track eerily lovely while still absolutely chilling.
Two of the album’s other sentimental favorites are duets that first appeared on other records. “From Here To The Moon And Back” finds Parton mixing it up with Willie Nelson, and first appeared on the redheaded stranger’s 2013 LP To All The Girls. The ode to “love without end” is delightful, infused with both Nelson’s usual minor-key guitar playing and Parton’s quiet croon. Even better is “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which Parton both wrote and performs with Kenny Rogers, who she’s often called one of her best friends. Originally released on Rogers’ album of the same name, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” finds the two legends musing on their mortality, asking questions like “What will I do when you’re gone?” and “Who’s going to tell me the truth?” It’s not exactly Johnny Cash covering “Hurt” territory, but it’s remarkably deep and dark material for two singers known mostly for their upbeat swingers.
Other tracks like the radio-friendly “Home” and the Christian-friendly “Lay Your Hands On Me” are less emotionally successful but lightly enjoyable all the same. “Home” might use clunky homespun phrases like “fill my tank” and rhyme “fishin’ hole” with “fishin’ pole,” but it’s still a bit of an earworm. “Lay Your Hands On Me” is obvious, but will still find a place with some listeners. “Lover Du Jour” is a bit more grating, with the 68-year-old and married Parton telling a “lover boy” that she “[knows his] kind,” and that if he wants “to be mine, we got to get this understood.” It ends with Parton trying to speak French, failing, and laughably apologizing to the country’s good people, though, putting a cute, believable button on the whole thing.
It’s that kind of realness that’s made Dolly Parton such a personal, personable celebrity for so many people. She’s written the songs to make her an icon, obviously, but it’s her down-home charm, apparently genuine goodness, and witty turns of phrase that have solidly put her in the hearts of the people. On Blue Smoke, she handily harnesses those charms—coupled with that stellar musicality, of course—to produce an absolutely lovely LP.