Dolly Parton
Photo: Vijat Mohindra / Big Machine

Dolly Parton Does a Great Job Pretending She’s a Rock Star

Dolly Parton’s Rockstar is another solid, consistent piece of work that shows the country legend having fun and enjoying herself at this point in her career.

Dolly Parton
Butterfly / Big Machine
17 November 2023

When announced that she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dolly Parton famously demurred, saying, “I don’t feel that I have earned that right. I really do not want votes to be split because of me, so I must respectfully bow out.” In her gracious statement, she continued, writing, “[The nomination] has, however, inspired me to put out a hopefully great rock ‘n’ roll album at some point in the future, which I have always wanted to do!” The nomination remained, and Parton eventually was inducted into the class of 2022. The promised rock album Rockstar is dropping this year. A sprawling 30-track record that collects several covers, famous duets, and a few originals.  

Parton’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a source of minor controversy that meets every cohort when artists who aren’t strictly rock musicians are included. The institution itself responded by highlighting country’s influence on rock and roll and pointing out that the Rock and Roll in the Hall of Fame refers to a generational designation versus a genre. 

One of the most successful and revered entertainers of the past 50 years, Dolly Parton is at once a genuine artist and a work of fiction. As a singer-songwriter, the country legend has written some of country music’s most candid, truthful songs. As a celebrity, she’s a self-curated work of pop art. Few artists have combined genuine musical talent with showmanship like Parton. Celebrity and flash always accompanied her work. And there have been moments throughout her career when the glitz has threatened to overshadow her music: for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Parton’s persona was a cartoon, her Mae West-like proportions, drag queen aesthetic, and her courting of Hollywood superstardom overwhelming her music.

Though she has course-corrected for the most part, having released some of her best music in the past few decades, celebrity has never been abandoned. Rockstar is a celebration of that celebrity. Like many artists of her age and stature, Parton has not only turned to popular music mainstays but also exploited her fame to get a guest list of rock and pop stars to join her.  

The list of stars on Rockstar is impressive. Some artists, namely Ann Wilson, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, and Emmylou Harris, can claim a legend as great as hers. There are also younger performers who have genuflected at the altar of Dolly, including Miley Cyrus, P!nk, Brandi Carlile, and Lizzo. When she shares the spotlight, then Rockstar becomes a duets album – that very particular species of album that sees a music vet hunt for record sales by frontloading her album with a bunch of famous names – the pop version of stunt casting. It’s due to Dolly’s legend that she doesn’t merely get fellow Boomer icons but a wide range of performers to engage with her unique talents.  

It’s clear that Dolly Parton loves pop music. It’s no surprise: one of her greatest ambitions in the 1970s, after toiling underneath the somewhat oppressive thumb of Porter Wagoner, was to break out as a solo country star and become a pop star. Though the album is called Rockstar, and its concept is tied to her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, it’s not solely a rock album. Sure, we’ve got some squealing guitars and rock drums. Dolly passes the mic to rock luminaries like Melissa Etheridge, Peter Frampton, Rob Halford, and Nikki Sixx, but this is squarely middle-of-the-road entertainment. Parton has previously covered songs like these, even putting out cover albums throughout her career that pay homage to artists like the Beatles, Yusuf Islam, Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Janis Joplin. Despite the rockstar affectations, Rockstar is a country-pop album that hopscotches through various genres, even bringing Dolly back to disco with her cover of Blondie‘s “Heart of Glass” (joined by punk goddess Debbie Harry).  

At 77, Parton’s voice has audibly aged; however, it’s remarkably strong and intact. It retains an angelic, crystalline sparkle, even if it’s thickened. Despite the wildly divergent styles represented on the record, Parton doesn’t seem lost or adrift, even if her beautiful trill is shoved in front of buzzing electric guitars. Though she doesn’t sound totally at home belting with Joan Jett on “I Hate Myself for Loving You” or Pat Benatar on “Heartbreak”, she sounds good. At this point, Dolly Parton has built up such a towering reputation and legend that she seems somewhat isolated on the record. The duets don’t all seem like collaborations; instead, it sounds as if some of Parton’s famous friends are singing at Parton or to her, but not with her.

There are some notable exceptions, though. Parton’s take on Linda Ronstadt’s classic “You’re No Good” is excellent. She’s joined by her close friend and frequent harmony partner, Emmylou Harris (whose ethereal voice matches Parton’s well), and Sheryl Crow, and Parton’s affinity for the tune shines bright. Parton also duets with her goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, on the younger diva’s hit, “Wrecking Ball”. Despite the yawning generation gap between the two, they sound wonderful together. And “Night Moves” with Chris Stapleton is a revelation, rising above the slightly gimmicky concept of the album, and provides listeners with an utterly charming experience. One of the strangest choices – that works surprisingly well – is Parton taking on Prince‘s “Purple Rain”. Transforming the spare ballad into a powerful gospel number, Parton shows off an impressive set of pipes, still capable of belting with a churchy fervor.  

Along with the solid musical moments on Rockstar, there are some fun, campy bits, too. Parton is inherently camp, and that kitschy sense of humor has often found itself in her music. In the goofily silly novelty number “I Dreamed About Elvis”, Parton is joined by Ronnie McDowell (famous for his tribute to the King, “The King Is Gone”) and the Jordanaires, who supported Presley on many of his big hits. The funny song retells the now-mythological story of Parton refusing to let Presley cover “I Will Always Love You” because he demanded she gives up her publishing rights; in a bit of role-playing and wish fulfillment, McDowell channels Presley in a hammy impression, as the two singers croon “I Will Always Love You” to the frisky rockabilly beat.  

Parton also indulges in her dance diva era with Debbie Harry on the new wave/disco classic “Heart of Glass.” The production, sweetened up a bit to fit into 2023, is faithful to the original. Parton and Harry have pretty girlish tones, somewhat weathered at this point, but both icons can ride the driving beat without skipping a beat. Both Parton and Harry have a history of 1970s disco and dance music. Parton has also been teasing her gay audiences about a dance album for the past fifteen years or so, and this bright and sparkly version of “Heart of Glass” shows that Parton can insert herself into all kinds of music just by dint of her ebullient charm. Though there’s a slight feeling of high-end karaoke, Parton and Harry are having so much fun on this odd collaboration that one hopes her next niche project will be that dance album.  

Though camp and comedy are a big part of any Dolly Parton project, heart and emotion are equally evident. In the past few years, Parton’s image of pop music’s patron saint of kindness and hope has meant that her more touching tunes feel more poignant and sadder. Despite seeing so much in her life, she remains miraculously celestial. Unfortunately, on Rockstar, these plaintive moments sometimes come off as lachrymose and maudlin. Some of her choices will prompt some eye rolls. Do we need another cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, and though she sounds fine on the Queen medley of “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You”, the result is still disappointingly trite.

But we can forgive Parton for indulging in her sentimental side because even if she occasionally tips into tweeness, at her best, she has no peers. She’s a master. Joined by Lizzo’s lovely flute, Dolly returns to “Stairway to Heaven” and summons that indelible transcendent magic. She’s similarly masterful in trading verses with Elton John on his beautiful ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. When paired with her close friend, Linda Perry, on the 1990s grunge-pop standard “What’s Up?” Parton sounds invigorated and passionate.  

Rockstar isn’t the definitive Dolly Parton album. It’s another solid, consistent piece of work that shows the country legend having fun and enjoying herself at this point in her career. No longer seeming to worry about scoring more number-one hits, Parton can indulge in these kinds of stylistic detours, and it’s a testament to her genius that even on a fun, light diversion like Rockstar, she still sounds better than the rest.  

RATING 7 / 10