Let's play a little trivial pursuit: can you name the song titles out of Dolly Parton's oeuvre with the word "blue"? One can definitely think of "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," "Blue Me," "The Grass is Blue," "Mule Skinner Blues," "Once in a Very Blue Moon," "My Blue Tears," "The Light of a Clear Blue Morning," and not forgetting the cheeky "PMS Blues." Now, can you think of the titles of some of Dolly Parton's train songs? Coming to mind are "Life Rides the Train," "Heartbreak Express," "Train, Train," "The Blue Train," & "The Train Don't There Anymore." Not only does Parton's latest single and album title has the right tincture, "Blue Smoke" is her latest addition to her burgeoning canon of train songs. While many of her peers have dropped out of the game a long time ago, this is not so with Parton. At 68 years-old, she is still embarking on a world tour and releasing what is her 42nd studio album. Already been released in Australia and New Zealand on January 31, 2014, "Blue Smoke" has an impending May release date for North America and Europe.
Though touted as the album's lead single, the title track "Blue Smoke" is not the best song on the record. By no means is it a dud, rather than slip-and-slide guitar and fiddles with its chirruping heartbreak content about a cheating paramour calls to mind Parton's bluegrass Rounder Record days. It's not bad but it's just not fresh sounding and it's not representative of the rest of the proceedings. The rest of the songs definitely are country but they are by no means channelled towards a bluegrass or rootsy acoustic direction as "The Grass is Blue" or "Little Sparrow." Best among the new Parton originals has to be the emotionally pluvial "Miss You-Miss Me." Here Parton enters heartbreak territory as she sings from the perspective of a daughter watching her parents' marriage falling apart. Parton's fragile girlish vocals are enough to shatter our hearts, This is definitely a song couples in a tumultuous relationship need to listen to before a dire decision is made.
Like a rippling azure that mirrors a postcard sky is Parton's prayer of thanksgiving to God for sending her an "Unlikely Angel." At the expense of peddling a cliché, Parton really sounds like an angel recounting on this piece of romantic ear candy all the things she loves about her husband. Even though "Don't Think Twice" has the thumping rhythmic structure of Parton's "Do I Ever Cross My Mind," it is actually written by Bob Dylan but now completely re-owned by Parton. Another cover includes the eerie murder ballad "Banks of Ohio" (a song that Olivia Newton-John took all the way to the top of the chart). Here Parton dons it with her spine-chilling a cappella and harmonizing skills, before being accompanied by a more rousing banjo and fiddle riffs. "Lover du Juor" reminds us that Parton can be a witty, sassy and gal who would not let a cad go by without staking her own demands from a relationship.
In the 80s, Kenny Rogers and Parton made magic with their slew of duets including "Islands in the Stream," "Real Love" and "Love is Strange." Almost 30 years later, they are back with "You Can't Make Old Friends." Though not as bubbly as "Islands in the Stream," "Old Friends" is a nostalgic ballad celebrating the invaluable nature of friendship that has class written all over it. The other duet here is the re-recording of "To the Moon and Back" (a duet with Willie Nelson) which first appeared on the soundtrack to the movie "Joyful Noise." Relative to Rogers, Willie Nelson's jittery and slower-than-the-note vocals do not provide the same warmth that is needed for this romantic duet. Though "Blue Smoke" may have its dips, it's far from being a puffy affair; some of these songs here are by far are Parton's best in a while. They won't just puff and dissipate with time.