2011’s Better Days was Dolly Parton’s 41st album and, including a great God song “In The Meantime” and six tracks saved from the here and gone Broadway musical version of “9 To 5”, it was a clear winner and one of the best of that year. 2014’s “Blue Smoke” isn’t bad, but it is a truly minor addition to her huge canon of work.
Two terrible duets, two excellent covers, one Gospel cover, a feeling good God head, and a handful of originals to close it. The album begins very well, the title track is jaunty country and “Unlikely Angel” a bluegrass dream of a ballad. The cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” (sic) must have been pleased him no end, a lovely touching take not of youthful wanderlust but the tiredness of romance. But that’s it for a long time. I’ve never bought the Kenny Rogers as Porter Wagoner stand in and “You Can’t Make Old Friends” is just a band song. I am not a Willie Nelson fan, he maybe the only huge country star from that period I can’t hear, and even so “From Here To The Moon And Back”. “Lover Du Jour” is silly camp. And “Try” is not “In The Meantime”.
At 68 years of age, Dolly can sell an album; she knows how to write a song without breaking her back and she knows how to construct an album: song placement, here a little Hillbilly recherchez, there a little campy sweetness, everywhere a Jesus song. It starts so well, two great new songs and a Dylan cover and then Kenny Rogers and you are a quarter of the way through the album before you can catch your breath. There is a tough mindedness and playfulness in placing “Banks Of The Ohio” next to “Lay Your Hands On Me”. It is the Parton template created in 1979 with Great Balls Of Fire and it continues to this day.
The difference between Better Days and Blue Smoke, is the former had all those great songs off the musical and the new one doesn’t and the songs are a little stale. “Miss You-Miss Me” is sweet but a little bland, “If I Had Wings” is so obvious you wonder why she is bothering. The “If I Had Wings” followed by “Lover Du Jour” stops the entire album in its tracks and it never recovers.
In the Dolly pantheon what Blue Smoke will do is give Dolly something to tour behind and I guess it’s enough if you love Dolly. And I do love Dolly. Just not enough to lie about her.
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