Dolly Parton is an anomaly among her contemporaries in country music. Aging icons from Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson to the late Johnny Cash and Porter Wagoner have allowed producers to frame them in fresh and often stripped-down contexts. Parton has resisted that trend, eager and able to prove she remains relevant at 68 simply by being her irrepressible self.
“Blue Smoke” is her latest release, and after recent adventures in slick, mainstream country, she enlivens her new album with more of her down-home roots, drawing heavily on bluegrass and Appalachian folk. It’s more in line with Parton’s trilogy of acoustic records she began with 1999’s “The Grass Is Blue” but it’s also varied enough to present Parton in her coat of many colors (sorry).
She digs deep into Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (shortened here to “Don’t Think Twice”), whose harmonica-and-guitar accompaniment eventually cracks wide open with a spirited bluegrass makeover. She turns “If I Had Wings” and the traditional “Banks of the Ohio” into haunting displays of mountain gospel.
Three decades removed from their country-pop juggernaut “Islands in the Stream,” Parton and Kenny Rogers reunite on “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” The passage of time is poignant as Parton sings, “How will I sing when you’re gone?/ ’Cause it won’t sound the same.” Willie Nelson also turns up on “From Here to the Moon and Back,” whose wistfulness recalls his work on “Stardust.”
This being Dolly, there are the occasional missteps (the silly “Lover du Jour,” the overly earnest “Try”). But even when Parton goes camp and piles on the gloss, there’s still a big heart beating beneath the album’s surface, much like the artist herself. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Don’t Think Twice”