She’s been at it over 50 years now and as the opening title track here shows – and the immediate follow up, Unlikely Angel for that matter – Dolly can still write a song; a darn good one at that. And her cover of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice shows she can still breathe new life into an oft-covered tune too. So Blue Smoke starts of very well indeed.
It stumbles once or twice, it isn’t up there with that bluegrass trilogy of a decade or so ago, but it’s better than some of the decent-enough albums she’s served since. It’s a record that fans can certainly feel happy with. Duets with old friends Kenny Rogers (You Can’t Make Old Friends) and Willie Nelson (From Here To The Moon And Back) feel like the easy-grab song version of a photo-op, but Kenny sounds better than he looks and like Dolly (and Willie) had held onto his voice, almost remarkably in fact. It’s actually a nice surprise to hear him sounding this good even if the song is lightweight.
A gospel cover of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands on Me is less successful than when Dolly fixed Collective Soul’s Shine – but it’s still preferable to hearing the Bon Jovi original.
Dobros and fiddles and harmonicas kiss the tunes lightly and snuggle tightly and there’s that warmth you’ve come to expect from Parton, that’s been a huge part of her post 1980s sound particularly.
And when she signs off Blue Smoke with yet another update of the Coat of Many Colors/Just Because I’m A Woman-style of autobiographical tale – this one called Try – you have to hand it to her. There’ll never be another like her ever. And the reason she sounds this good – still – is because she’s always been at least this good. And often remarkable. That voice, the writing, the image too. There’s always something wonderful about Dolly Parton. And the performances – even when there’s the odd almost-dud song or two – are always utterly sincere.