2 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Dolly Parton has been making country music for well over fifty years, some of it wonderfully timeless.
In this category, I would place a range of her releases, including early albums such as Just Because I’m A Woman, Coat of Many Colors, and My Tennessee Mountain Home, almost all of those RCA singles from 1968-1979, the reinvigorated burst of early 90s energy on White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies, and Slow Dancing With The Moon, to more recent recordings including Hungry Again and the Sugar Hill ‘bluegrass’ trilogy that started with The Grass Is Blue in 1999.
But some of the Parton catalog is unquestionably rather disposable—over-produced, throwaway albums; multiple slick duets and soundtrack songs no one needs to remember; silly concepts (2005’s Those Were The Days, for instance); and the plain ill-conceived: 1984’s The Great Pretender and covers of “Walking On Sunshine” and “Peace Train” that will never make sense to me.
One sometimes wonders what Dolly is thinking, but we are impressed by both her longevity and the balls she brings to much of her music. Unfortunately, Blue Smoke has more in common with the questionable aspects of Parton’s recording history.
Blue Smoke has a couple things going for it. Parton re-imagines “Banks of the Ohio” a little, taking on the role of the murderer’s confessor; joined by Bryan Sutton (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and especially Carl Jackson (vocals), a fresh interpretation of the oft-recorded classic is achieved. Overwrought it may be, “Unlikely Angel” is the kind of sentimental song that has served Parton well over the years, and features Sonya Isaacs and Rebecca Isaacs Bowman vocally. “If I Had Wings” is similarly overly emotive, but remains listenable.
The pulsing title track starts off promising, but goes off the rails when Parton and album producer Kent Wells insert a little too much into the proceedings: this snapping, southern sing-a-long could have been great, but ‘clickety clack’ and ‘choo-choo, woo-woo’ are a bit much, as is the mid-song testimonial. It becomes a bit of a—forgive me—train wreck. Three of the male Grascals appear here either instrumentally or vocally, as does the deep-voiced Christian Davis.
The majority of the album is tinged in desperation. “Lover Du Jour” comes off as pathetic, “Miss You-Miss Me” is cringe inducing, and “Try” is just plain heavy handed. A song that could have been good, “Home” is beaten down by relentless drums, guitar effects, and confused production choices. Duets with Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Willie Nelson (“From Here to the Moon and Back”) are better than expected, but both were previously released elsewhere.
A cover of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” is supposed to be part of her, in Dolly’s words, “never-ending desire to try to uplift mankind.” Unfortunately, there is nothing inspirational about the song, and Parton’s revamping of the lyrics and inserting the occasional ‘Lord’ to the proceedings does nothing to bridge a fairly significant gulf between the self-indulgent, hair-metal original and Parton’s attempt at country gospel. At least she didn’t try to reinvent “Every Rose Has A Thorn” as a crucifixion observance.
I love Dolly Parton’s music. I love the spunky firebrand image she has created, the assertiveness with which she conducts herself, and I appreciate her commitment to her home community. “The Bargain Store,” “Joshua,” and “The Seeker” are three of the greatest songs ever written, regardless of genre.
So it pains me to write a review of Blue Smoke that is largely negative. But, that’s how it goes. If you unleash a stinker, someone has to call you on it.
And, she has.