Dolly Parton

Blue Smoke – 2014 (Dolly)

Reviewed by Robert Loy

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CDs by Dolly Parton

Of all the songs you never expected Dolly Parton to cover, Bon Jovi's "Lay Your Hands on Me" has got to be near the top of the list. Although by the time Miley Cyrus's godmother gets through personalizing the song there's not enough of the original left to call it a cover - just a word or two here and there and the chorus, which for those of you who have forgotten this masterpiece of 80's hair metal is just the title of the song repeated almost enough times to make a listener want to lay his hands violently on the CD player to make it stop. Presumably Parton meant to clean up the raunchy rocker by singing it to God instead of a groupie.

But it's not that simple. It is true that it is no longer an offer of reciprocal erotic massage, but since she did leave in Jon Bon's lyric assuring the Great Masseuse Upstairs about His satisfaction being guaranteed, it is much more disturbing now. Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" fares better at the hands of Miss P, probably because it was always a country song, and she doesn't feel compelled to "improve" any of the lyrics; she even leaves in the line about the "light I never knowed," which so many cover artists cannot bring themselves to sing. She does shorten the title to "Don't Think Twice," however. And she really nails the classic murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio." She manages to make it her own while losing none of the chilling aspects of the original.

One of Dolly's most prominent assets - no, not what you're thinking - has always been her likability. It allows her to get away with lyrics that would bring a chorus of catcalls down on a less charismatic performer - like rhyming "down the track" with "Clickity-clack" and "Choo choo choo" with "Woo woo woo" on the title track. Likewise her determination to bring back a vocal style nobody's been clamoring for - specifically early Bill Anderson; a distressing number of songs contain whispering - can be overlooked. Likability and nostalgia carry the duet with Kenny Rogers "You Can't Make Old Friends" even though the theme is woefully underdeveloped.

How much the listener believes in that likability will probably determine whether or not it works when Dolly starts making bigger and bigger withdrawals from that asset, like on "Miss You, Miss Me" where the 68-year old sings from the point of view of a child whose parents are divorcing. A whispering child no less. And only the hardcore fans will listen without wincing to the food puns and mangled French on "Lover du Jour."

She's certainly to be commended for stretching her wings on this, her 43rd studio album, but it undoubtedly comes to life when she plays to her strengths, as on the nostalgic "Home" and the spiritual "If I Had Wings."