When Dolly Parton was first nominated for and then inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year, certain quarters of the rock community lost their collective shit. Never mind the fact that a precedent has long been set by that institution that they’re using the term “rock & roll” in its broadest sense, feathers were well and truly ruffled. “She’s country, they have their own hall of fame, she doesn’t belong in ours.”
Frankly, it stunk of simplistic thinking. But ultimately, it all comes down to whether one views “rock & roll” as a genre or a spirit, a feeling. We’ve always veered toward the latter, which is why the likes of Public Enemy, and Kraftwerk, and yes, ABBA, absolutely deserve their spot. As does Dolly Parton.
The Queen of country has influenced countless musicians across countless scenes, smashing glass ceilings and kicking down metaphorical doors. When she initially, graciously declined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s nomination, those are the arguments that they offered her. Her music transcends any genre, her legacy is primarily one of country music, yes, but her influence has organically spread much further.
Parton listened, she took it all in and she appreciated the sentiment. But it wasn’t enough for her. She had to be comfortable with the induction, to feel like she’d earned it. So Dolly Parton set about recording a rock album, appropriately titled Rockstar.
“I had often thought that I’d maybe like to do a rock album, because my husband is a huge rock & roll fan,” Parton told us via a Zoom interview. “Off and on, I used to think, maybe someday I’ll do a rock album. Then I started getting older, and then I thought, “Well, it’s probably too late now.’ I wasn’t expecting to go into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I kinda resisted it at the start, but they put me in anyway. I’m really big on timing. I believe that timing is everything. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m gonna be in the rock & roll hall of fame, I need to earn it, and if I’m ever gonna do a rock & roll album, now’s the time.’ So I took advantage of all of that, and just went for it. I think it turned out really well. I’m really proud of it. I was a little nervous at the start, but I felt like it turned out pretty good, considering I’d never done it before.”
And so she just upped and did it. Parton selected a bunch of songs that she wanted to cover, and prepped some originals, too. She roped in a whole lot of premier league rock and pop icons, legends and general stars to work with, and then she recorded a whole lot of songs. Whittling them down proved impossible, so Rockstar ended up as a 30-song beast — 21 covers, nine originals.
“Before I knew it, they were just mounting up and I wasn’t finished,” Parton says. “I thought, ‘I need to do all these songs so I can choose how many I will have, I’ll have a great field to pick from, to make a normal album.’ But the more I listened, I couldn’t cut any of them out. And then we talked about it. I said, ‘Well, since I’m probably never going to do another one, since I’ve never done one before, can’t we just go ahead and put them all out? Just maybe do some vinyls, just to have stuff to leave for my legacy for people to pick and choose and do compilations of through the years.’ So we decided just to go ahead and put it all out. We even had a few bonus tracks, too. We actually had about 35 things we did, 35 or 36 songs. Some of them are still in the can. Some of them we’re gonna use for bonus tracks for different things at different times. But the 30 that we did are just the best of the lot, I felt.”
Like the HOF, the list of people Parton has worked with is as eclectic as it is impressive. Goddaughter Miley Cyrus duets on “Wrecking Ball,” while P!nk and Brandi Carlile appear on the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfactrion.” Hip-hop star Lizzo is on “Stairway to Heaven,” and elsewhere you can find the prestigious likes of Elton John, Paul McCartney, Steve Perry, and John Fogerty.
“They were songs that my husband had always loved,” Parton says. “So I’ve just heard these songs through the years, him playing them in the house on his record player and in the car, in the truck, on the tractor, wherever he is, he’s always playing rock & roll. So I thought, ‘Well, if I’m gonna do this rock & roll album, I’m gonna do songs that he loves.’ He always loved the song ‘Open Arms’ and he always told me, he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you and Kenny Rogers could have a number one record with that, you should do that with Kenny.’ And I missed my opportunity because Kenny passed away. That was one of the first thoughts I had. ‘Well, if I’m gonna do this rock album, I’m gonna do ‘Open Arms‘ for Carl.’ After I had done it, I thought I’d call Steve Perry, and I asked if he would be willing to join me on it, and he said he’d be proud to. So he did, and I think he made it really special. Carl loved that one, when I played it for him.”
It was also, naturally, vitally important to Parton to include some of the many female artists that followed her lead and rose to the top. This album features Debbie Harry, Ann Wilson, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, Pat Benatar, and many more incredible women.
“It was important to me, to have those wonderful gals,” Parton says. “I loved (Heart’s) the ‘Magic Man.’ I always loved that. That was one of my favorites in the rock field. I thought it would be great to have all there, and some of the new ones like P!nk and Brandi Carlisle, that joined me on ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’”
Parton is a wonderful human being to have a conversation with. She’s undeniably one of the biggest music stars in the world, and yet time in her presence feels very natural. She’s warm, sweet and humble, but also well aware of what she’s achieved and her importance to her fans. We put it to her that while Rockstar is great and clearly a fun project for all involved, it wasn’t necessary for her to prove her rock credentials to anyone but herself.
“I’m a very thoughtful, considerate person and I know how I feel about country music,” she says. “I spent my whole life in that, so any award they want to give me in country music, I feel like I have as much right to it as anyone else. I’m honored to get it and proud to receive it. But when they started to put me in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I was just certain there were so many people that spent their whole lives in rock & roll that would like to get in the Hall of Fame. I felt like I was taking something from them – somebody as sincere about their work in their field as I am about mine. I just felt like I might be taking votes from someone else that deserved it more than me. So I just said, ‘I’d just as soon pass on that and let some real rock & roller in.’ But then they explained it to me and it kinda got turned into a little controversy. I wasn’t being rebellious. I am rebellious when it comes to my beliefs, I just didn’t believe I had earned it. But they convinced me that I had. It was more about the influence I’d had in other fields of music. I thought, ‘I’m certainly not a bad person, I will certainly accept it gracefully,’ and I did. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m gonna be in the rock & roll hall of fame, I’m gonna have to have a better reason for myself than just what they said.’”
While some of the covers have slowly emerged prior to the album’s release, the leadoff single was an original — “World on Fire” — a song that sounds like it could have been written yesterday.
“We had already finished the rock album, we’d done 35 songs and thought, ‘We’ve got to stop somewhere,’” Parton says. “We said, ‘OK, enough.’ The very night that we said, ‘enough,’ I woke up out of my sleep with this song, ‘World on Fire.’ I had watched the news, I’m sure, before I went to bed. I just thought, ‘Oh my lord, this world has gone crazy. The world is on fire.’ It was just about the whole world. I got up and wrote the song, and I was inspired by the shape the world was in. It’s the same shape it’s in right now. That was just a year ago when I wrote the song. I was concerned about all the things going on, just thinking, ‘Why can’t we try a little harder, do a little better.’ But it means a lot to me, that song. It’ll be appropriate from now till the end of time, unless we really do shape up and try to do something different.”
It is noticeable that Parton has an outspoken conservative on the album, Kid Rock, alongside vocal progressives such as Joan Jett. Parton says that she was only thinking about the music.
“I accept everybody for who and what they are,” she says. “Of course we can always improve, but I’m talking about people. We should love people. We should find that light in everybody and be drawn to that. Do it through love. I try not to judge or criticize people. I don’t want to be judged or criticized, myself. I just want to be left alone to be me, and I want everybody to be left alone to be them. So I was just thinking about the music, thinking about the voices, thinking about the people that were appropriate for these songs, and what I wanted to accomplish with this album. But I’m glad I got to use a variety.”
As far as Dolly Parton is concerned, this is a one-off. Thirty songs on the album with a handful more in the can, and she’s about done with recording rock & roll. She’s unlikely to tour it, due to the huge endeavor of getting all of those musicians together. So beyond the occasional one-off performance, Parton will be moving onto other things. One of things might well be a gospel record. Why not?
“I want to do a great gospel album that’s on the level of this rock album,” she says. “Big, uplifting spiritual, positive songs to try and uplift people, too, and then have some of the great artists who are into gospel. There’s a lot of big stars, big artists, that grew up in church like I did. Of course, that music is so inspiring. I think I could get a lot of big artists from all fields to sing on a great, uplifting, inspirational album. That’s something I’m burning to do. It’d be a joy for me.”
She should. And after that, if Dolly Parton wants to make techno album, or a jazz album, or a thrash metal album, she should do that. This is Dolly Parton, and she can do whatever the hell she wants to.
Good Golly Ms Dolly: Dolly Parton’s Rockstar is out Nov. 17.