Southern belle shines through

It’s a testament to Dolly Parton’s talent that contemporary country hasn’t put out her spark. At 68, her voice can still soar and when she chooses to, she can still get a rise at the bar with the best of them.

If you need convincing, just listen to her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” on her new album “Blue Smoke.” Sure, the song has been done to death and this over-produced version certainly isn’t definitive, but from the opening lines, “Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe/ It don’t matter anyhow/ Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, baby/ If you don’t know by now,” Parton slays you as she always does, with the depth and charm that have made her a force in popular music since the ’60s.

“Blue Smoke” definitely is amped up when compared to her previous outing, the more relaxed “Better Day” from 2011. The stakes seem higher, which is good and bad. It’s good because Parton is pushed to higher highs, but it also means that the contemporary country production force that is determined to iron out the life of each note is at full attention, meaning that there’s unnecessary flourishes at every turn that distract from Parton’s natural power.

So, we get both Parton’s terrifically emotive singing (I can’t emphasize that enough) on “Don’t Think Twice” and an intrusive violin that feels the need to fill every gap rather than giving her voice any breathing room.

One of the highlights is a spiritual take on the traditional “Banks of the Ohio.” It doesn’t rival my favorite version by The Kossoy Sisters, but its a cappella beginning is arresting, and places the focus squarely on Parton, allowing her vocals to command the listener. It’s simple, elegant and very effective, and is an exception to the general rule of the album: that the livelier songs are the better ones.

Let’s face it, Parton is at her best when she unbuttons and unleashes her attitude, like in “Lover du Jour,” a song that begins with her saying, “What are you looking at lover boy?/ It won’t do you any good/ Because I know your kind/ If you wanna be mine, we gotta get this understood.” This sassiness is far preferable to the sentimental self-helpy-ness of ballads like “Try,” a sweet-but-cheesy tune about never giving up that isn’t nearly as bad as it should be simply because Parton wills it to be better.

That’s the power of Parton – she can elevate thin material simply by being her. But the magic happens when the songs have the muscle to match and on “Blue Smoke,” that happens a little more than usual.

3 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: “Don’t Think Twice.”