Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton

Dolly Records, 2014

REVIEW BY: Mark Millan


Much like Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton has been enjoying a seemingly never-ending career renaissance since the late ‘90s. Following the release of her stunning return to bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue in 1999, Parton has only endured one creative slip-up (2003’s awful For God And Country) and enjoyed the critical and commercial success of no less than six of her studio releases as well as the fantastic live set, Live And Well from 2004.  It seems everything Parton does these days is done so well that each success is almost predetermined.

Dolly’s 42nd (yikes!) studio album is no exception again, as Blue Smoke sits firmly alongside the creative highs of the “bluegrass trilogy” of The Grass Is Blue (1999), Little Sparrow (2001) and Halos And Horns (2002). Musically, it is another bluegrass-led affair that has been superbly produced by Kent Wells and performed by Parton’s band. The great thing about Blue Smoke is that although there are a few covers here, Parton has written eight of the album’s twelve songs, which is pretty much the reverse formula than the one that was used for the original bluegrass trilogy. 

There is one song present here that has previously released and I suspect the only reason it has reappeared on the record is because it is a duet that Parton recorded with her old touring buddy, Kenny Rogers. The song in question is titled “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and is just a really sweet performance from both Rogers and Parton, but it’s not exactly essential as far as either of their past work is considered.  Parton has recorded another duet for the album with another old buddy, Willie Nelson, who pops up just before the album is done to join Parton on her own “From Here, To The Moon And Back,” which to my ears is a much more satisfying effort than the Rogers/Parton track.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Parton has also re-recorded one of her old songs that was a huge hit for Olivia Newton-John some forty years ago; but in doing so, Dolly has stripped the country/pop hit bare of all that is recognizable and reimagined it in a much more suited manner to the rather dark lyrical content, resulting in a classic murder ballad. “Blue Smoke,” “Unlikely Angel” and “If I Had Wings” are all full of character and give the album heaps of heart and sweetness. 

My favorite Parton original on the record however is the up-tempo, pop-tinged “Lover Du Jour,” which is both musically and lyrically lots of fun. At the end, the track finds Parton declaring “Oh, my French is terrible, but my love is awesome” after dropping the last few lines of the song in French, which is all the more comical due to Parton’s Southern accent.

A common theme among the last decade and a half of Parton’s albums is to cover a popular rock song and give it the full bluegrass treatment. This has been successful for her on previous releases like on Little Sparrow, when Dolly reimagined the Collective Soul song “Shine” and turned it into a gospel gem. Halos And Horns saw her tackle the holy grail of rock ballads as she transformed Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” into another gospel inspired masterpiece. 

This time around, Parton has chosen another instantly recognizable song but albeit an ‘80s hair rock classic in Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me.” The result is so much better than it should be and it is almost worth buying the album for that track alone. Dolly has also reworked Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” in an imaginative but still faithful way that only highlights what a great song that is in the first place. 

There is so much to like about Blue Smoke. Although the album is not scheduled for release in the United States until May 2014, it was released in January in Australia and New Zealand to coincide with Parton’s sellout tour throughout the region during February. Blue Smoke will be worth the wait, however, trust me.

Rating: A-

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© 2014 Mark Millan and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dolly Records, and is used for informational purposes only.