Dolly Parton was a fireball of energy when she called for a quick chat about her new album, Blue Smoke, and the companion tour that took her to Australia in February and that will take her across Europe this summer, with some US dates along the way.
“I can talk fast, so we can cover a lot of ground,” the 68-year-old Tennessee native said out of the gate. Up first, the album, which was released earlier this year in time for the Australia dates, has just come out in the US and the rest of the world.
The title reflects the character of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee where she grew up, and the tone to an extent harks to the rootsy, back-to-basics albums she put out at the turn of the 21st century, The Grass Is Blue, and its successor, Little Sparrow. Those albums earned her the two most recent of her seven Grammy Awards, The Grass Is Blue for country album and the Little Sparrow track Shine for female country vocal.
“This album tends to have more of the bluegrass-country flavour,” she said. “We used all the bluegrass instruments. One of the reasons I called it Blue Smoke is that it has a tinge of the bluegrass of the Smoky Mountains — a mountain music flavour. The Blue Smoke song is about a heartbreak train called Blue Smoke.”
It’s built on a spirited shuffle rhythm, rootsy instrumentation including guitar, fiddle and dobro and a sing-along chorus with her message of departure to an unfaithful love: “It hurts to know you cheated and it hurts to know you lied/But it hurts me even worse to know you never even tried.”
The majority of the songs are her own, but she’s also recorded a sweetly reflective duet with old pal Kenny Rogers on You Can’t Make Old Friends, and she’s included her versions of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands on Me and Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.
Of the Bon Jovi song, she said, “I kinda countrified it, the way I do. I did it with more of a gospel flavour and added some new words. When I first heard that, I thought, ‘Man, what a great title.’ It has a great feel, gospel sound and that message of ‘lay your hands on me’ for people who believe in prayer, it’s a good uplifting song. It’s going to be a nice tune for our concerts. And I did Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, which has always been a favourite of mine. That turned out very nice in a country-bluegrassy way.”
The album ends on almost a valedictory note with Try, a quintessential piece of Parton’s homespun philosophising and empowerment that would become a key part of her music: “Secure yourself for climbing/Make ready for the flight/Don’t let your chance go by/You’ll make it if you try.”
She made a quick jaunt out west in January for dates in Arizona, Nevada and a Southern California casino show in Rancho Mirage.
The first leg of her US tour starts on May 22 in Tulsa, Okla., and includes only a handful of shows in the Midwest and South before she’s off to Europe for much of the summer. More US dates are still to be announced.
Besides giving concerts in Australia, she continued rolling out her Dolly Parton Imagination Library programme there, funded by her Dollywood Foundation, that puts free books into the hands of preschool children.
United Way has joined with the programme to expand it worldwide, and “they’re doing amazing things,” she said. “Every day something new happens, and they’re getting more books into the hands of more children.”
She appeared as herself in the Lifetime movie A Country Christmas Story, which premiered last autumn and is likely to be trotted out every holiday season.
After dropping in a good word about her 30-year-old Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, at which an accompanying resort is being built — “that’s new and exciting” — she was ready to move on.
“Mostly, we’re promoting the new CD and the world tour, and with the Imagination Library and Dollywood,” she said with her signature squeaky laugh. “That oughta be enough for a simple country girl.”