Country music legend Dolly Parton reaches back to her mountain music roots on her 42nd album, Blue Smoke.
Moody bluegrass themes, spiritual/gospel sounds and her trademark upbeat country story-songs are mixed with a clutch of covers and duets to present a solid album of depth and high-end performance from Parton.
Her lyrical wit is undiminished and this, along with her timing and ageless vocal performance, gives Blue Smoke plenty of integrity without grovelling for singles.
Parton dips into the past for a haunting bluegrass vibe on If I Had Wings, where she invokes a keening vocal effect used by singers from the backwoods hollers to mimic steel guitars. It is spooky and effective.
She sets the pace high on the title song, a high-energy mix of classic clichés (cheatin’, lyin’, heartbreak) mixed in with train images and the metaphor of Parton’s Smoky Mountain origins.
Her skill with words, wit and honest delivery are in top form: sly turns of phrase and a sense of time make this a performance-based album.
Her renown as a songwriter goes back to the 1960s, and Blue Smoke is focussed on solid themes and changes of mood. It’s a traditional country album at heart and weaves in country-folk, bluegrass, gospel and mountain music.
There are two well chosen covers: Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice done bluegrass style and a gospel/rock treatment of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands On Me.
Parton’s energy level is high and that carries over to her sentimental duet with Kenny Rogers, You Can’t Make Old Friends. It has the tinge of bittersweet longing necessary to pay tribute to their partnership.
Less poignant is the informal Willie Nelson pairing, with both musicians bringing charm to a traditional- sounding track.
Parton captures dusky standards on Banks of the Ohio and inspirational melodicism in Unlikely Angel to make Blue Smoke a well-realized recording: a group of songs with different themes that stay connected. She sounds youthful and energized with a lot to say.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician and writer who reviews the latest music releases for The Morning Star.