Blue Smoke, released by legendary country music heroine Dolly Parton, is what you would expect—a few good hearted tunes that you should never tell your friends you listen to.
First off, the title track pulls out all the country-western cliches—a train drumbeat, picked banjo, quick fiddle riffs, slide dobro and a particular backup vocalist with pipes that sound like they’d have to be genetically modified to be so low. “Blue Smoke” isn’t a tune to take seriously, it’s something to mindlessly play while you cruise through the midwest in your American-made pickup truck. As Parton sings, “Rollin’ down the track. . .I ain’t never comin’ back.”
But Blue Smoke presents more than just cheap pleasure. “Don’t Think Twice,” the Bob Dylan classic, is covered with respect and originality. Finger picked guitar and Southern belle vocals open the tune, quickly surrounded with drums, dobro and fiddle. This song sounds pure Dolly, but you can tell it’s a Dylan tune. The tragic sarcasm of the great folk singer comes through with “I wish there was something you would do or say, to try and make me want to change my mind and stay / We never did too much talking anyway, don’t think twice it’s alright.” Immediately following, however, Nashville harmonies and technically perfect slide resonator guitar let you know that this, in fact, is the same old Dolly. By the end of the tune, the chorus has been repeated several times, but hey, it’s that good.
Even with all its sincerity, Blue Smoke still has its unfortunate moments. “Lay Your Hands On Me,” featuring Jon Bon Jovi, has to be addressed. Bon Jovi, the downright lame rock star, and Parton make a track that is just strange. Lyrics like, “Lord I’m ready, I’m willing, and you’re able / To fill my empty cup at the master’s table,” are a good, albeit graphic example. And similar to other modern country songs, “Home” falls victim to the overproduced sound prevalent on popular radio. A processed Nashville production with too much tele twang and little organic value penetrates deep. However, sentimental lyrics like, “Home / On the front porch swingin’ and fern pots hangin’,” can’t help but inspire a reluctant chuckle of familiar comfort.
Parton is a simple minded artist with an undeniably righteous philosophy. Her music is predictable and not terribly exciting, but it’s dependable. She’s a time-tested staple in her genre and hopefully won’t be going anywhere soon. “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” a duet with Kenny Rogers, reflects this commitment in a chorus that plainly sings the title. Parton’s values are clear: family, friends and lasting good times. Towards the end of the album, Willie Nelson shows up for a duet on “From Here to the Moon and Back.” This is great. A ballad with Nelson’s gentle but worn vocals brings out the best part about country—simple sincerity. Parton’s response is assertive but does not bogart. Her values are reflected in Willie singing, “Thank Heavens for you, and to God tip my hat.”
Blue Smoke, while not groundbreaking, represents a country veteran doing what she does best. Although Parton is not trending in college music circles, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future, this album deserves an objective listen.