Dolly Parton is the Keith Richards of platitude abuse. On her 42nd album, Blue Smoke, the country legend mainlines one greeting-card sentiment after another, singing about angels, rainbows, moons, and fishing holes with reckless abandon. But the vividness and genuine conviction in that timeless, still-powerful voice finds the humanity in all of it, including a ballad about the benefits of trying hard and a cover of a Bon Jovi song about people touching each other.
From the hardscrabble realities of her Tennessee-mountain upbringing to the woman she feared was going to take her man, Parton mined the events of her life to craft many of her iconic early hits. And she brings all of that truth-telling experience to bear here, while enlisting contemporary country producer Buddy Cannon to prevent any disconnect with 21st-century Nashville. The result is a country album that checks off all the necessary boxes (twangy sing-along, shiny hard-rock tune, gussied-up ballad) while still sounding like the heartfelt product of an invested superstar.
For all the treacle she has to process into real feelings on songs like “Try” (“So try to be the first one up the mountain/The highest flying dreamer in the sky”), Blue Smoke contains plenty of evidence that Parton can still write songs full of imagination, humor, and history. The title track sounds like one of those 100-year-old pieces of Americana that can never be overplayed, using a train as a metaphor for heartbreak, the byproduct of its engines beckoning lonely hearts from afar. “Lover du Jour” has plenty of fun wagging a finger at a promiscuous man, making all kinds of unsavory food references to prove Parton’s not about to be a temporary menu item.
Parton has shown a weakness for stunt covers in the past (“Shine” and “Stairway to Heaven” among them), but her take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is sweet and straightforward, adding little more than a steel guitar quiver to those achingly familiar chords. She heavily rewrites Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” turning it into a winking gospel song about “the Lord’s” healing touch, cleansing any trace of the original’s dick of a narrator telling a woman that “satisfaction’s guaranteed.”
Perhaps the best example of Parton making material better just by her presence is the Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” Despite its musty slow-dance guitars and manipulative concept, it draws you in. Because when Rogers sings “What will I do when you’re gone/Who’s gonna tell me the truth,” he sounds like a fan coming to grips with the fact that she won’t always be around. Nobody will ever tell us the truth quite like she can, after all—or get us to drink up those platitudes like wine.