“No, I am not for your amusement,” Dolly Parton says with a wink on one of Blue Smoke’s deeper album cuts, the frothy “Lover Du Jour.” Ostensibly a rejoinder to some woefully unserious paramour, the quip could offer a clue as to why the iconic singer recorded the album — her 42nd — in the first place: because she wanted to.
By the time Blue Smoke was released in 2014, the Dolly tides had almost fully turned. The then 68-year-old singer had come full circle in a way, from savant to country music punchline to memefied global icon whose cultural significance sometimes outpaced even her musical impact — most often evidenced by debates over whether or not she could credibly be called a “feminist” (a term she neither embraces nor vehemently rejects), and a booming business in merchandise that positioned her as some kind of human deity (WWDD?). She certainly didn’t need to record a new album, except perhaps as the nominal impetus for a tour; her legacy as an artist had been cemented decades earlier, and most listeners couldn’t even be trusted to give the new stuff a shot when they could easily listen to “Jolene” for the zillionth time instead.
But Dolly isn’t for our amusement, really, nor is she for whatever elaborate belief system we might project onto her. She chose to make a vibrant, rollicking new album that included members of her Mighty Fine touring band presumably because she wanted to, and because it’s what she does — what she does with the kind of clarity and ease that can make any music timeless.
The release is, in many ways, of a piece with much of her late-era output: a collection of new and old originals, covers and collaborations, many of which have a decidedly bluegrass tinge and many others that display the same polished country pop styles Parton had spent decades refining. Blue Smoke is named for both the album’s title track and the lovely haze of Parton’s native Smoky Mountains, which she’s paid tribute to often over the course of her career — “It was a song that brought me out of the Smoky Mountains and it will be a song that will lay me back down in the ground in the Smoky Mountains,” as she put it during the album’s press tour.
Yet the release is hardly bogged down in nostalgia. Instead, Parton approaches familiar forms and ideas with characteristic verve and expertise. “Blue Smoke” is a classic-sounding train song that had been in Parton’s live repertoire for years before she recorded it — nominally about heartbreak but still overflowing with bluegrass-gospel energy, it begs a singalong. Getting the album off to a bright, virtuosic start, the song also spotlights the impossible polish of Parton’s collaborators. Kent Wells, her longtime bandleader, produced much of Blue Smoke, honing it to a clean, warm veneer that allowed Parton’s still-powerful voice to shine right alongside the lush instrumentals.
“Unlikely Angel,” which Parton originally wrote for a 1996 made-for-TV Christmas movie of the same name, is an impeccably gentle bluegrass love song, while “Home” channels that same vintage sound into a much more contemporary framework (including drum machines). Though it didn’t wind up on the country charts, the bouncy tune still bears all the trappings of a surefire radio hit.
The more haunting side of the Smoky Mountains gets play on the album as well: “If I Had Wings,” a stripped-down original, seems like it should be the soundtrack to some grim backwoods tale — at least until Parton takes it a cappella at the end for a powerful vocal showcase, proving that she hardly needs a camera to make a movie out of a song.
“Banks Of The Ohio,” a traditional murder ballad, gets a Dolly spin with a new intro she wrote that transforms the song’s narrator into a journalist charged with reporting on the tragedy. Sung reverently, with close harmonies that are either a cappella or accompanied by acoustic strings, the song is a moving tribute to the depth of Parton’s own musical heritage — and evidence of how naturally it still seems to come to her to serve as a conduit to that rapidly vanishing musical past. Parton performed at Glastonbury for the first time not long after this album was released, and performed this quiet, somber song for the tens of thousands-strong crowd, silencing them with ease by singing a tune that likely traced back to the very land they were standing on.
Parton performs plenty of other Dolly-only feats — turning a Bon Jovi song into a gospel revival anthem (“Lay Your Hands On Me”), duetting with Willie Nelson (“From Here To The Moon And Back”) and Kenny Rogers (whose appearance on ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends” took on new weight following his passing in 2020), and successfully selling the aforementioned quasi-Francophone “Lover Du Jour.”
The album’s crown jewel, though, might also be the most impressive feat of them all: a fresh, distinctive, endlessly believable bluegrass take on the Bob Dylan chestnut “Don’t Think Twice.” Parton sings the endlessly covered song with candor and wit, one ace songwriter interpreting another. She alluded to a possible “Dolly Does Dylan” album during the press run, adding the caveat that he’d declined to join her for an earlier cover of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and so she wasn’t sure if she should pursue it. But it’s hard to imagine anyone — even Dylan — hearing this remarkable rendition and not begging for more, which is, of course, Dolly’s magic, whether it’s for our amusement or not.
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more.