It’s sometimes hardest to see what’s right in front of our noses. When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made a rare good call and nominated Dolly Parton in 2022, the singer, songwriter, actress, and all-around superstar declined, saying she hadn’t “earned that right,” and expressed her desire to “put out a hopefully great rock ’n’ roll album at some point in the future, which I have always wanted to do.” She later relented and was inducted. Whether to scratch that itch or prove her credentials, or perhaps a bit of both, Parton just released Rockstar, a collection of originals and covers featuring duets with such rock royalty as Elton John, Sting, Peter Frampton, and Paul McCartney, along with some newer artists, including Chris Stapleton, Kid Rock, and Lizzo.
At thirty tracks, spanning close to two and a half hours, Rockstar is epic, combining standard rock themes of love, loss, and betrayal with more characteristically Dolly-esque motifs about hard work, perseverance, and achievement. It takes cojones to cover such classics as “Stairway to Heaven” and “Let It Be.” But Dolly doesn’t simply give us fresh takes. She does what Dolly does, making even these songs bigger, bolder, and—dare I say—better than the originals, albeit in the latter case with the help of McCartney and Ringo Starr.
Another standout track is Dolly’s “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” medley, the music video for which was produced in collaboration with NBCUniversal to promote its coverage of the 2024 Olympic Games. Dolly says,
I love the Olympics! I do my best to plan my schedule to watch as much of it as I possibly can. . . . I tape it just in case I miss the live action on a certain day and watch it back as soon as possible. I laugh, I cry, I scream.1
The music video features Dolly singing in a stadium, interspersed with inspiring shots of Olympians in their moments of triumph.
But the most triumphant track is the opener, “Rockstar,” which starts with a short skit wherein a young Dolly’s parents hopelessly try to dissuade her from getting into rock ’n’ roll. The recalcitrant girl turns up her guitar amp and shreds. Later in the song, she sings the lines that serve as an overarching theme for the whole album.
Don’t you ever give up on your dreams
No matter how far-fetched they seem
They may not be all that extreme
Another song about a more literal dream, the jump jiving “I Dreamed about Elvis,” relays Dolly’s nighttime visions of the King appearing to her—and the two singing their hearts out together on all of Elvis’s hits. Early in Dolly’s career, Elvis wanted to record her song “I Will Always Love You.” But when his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, demanded half of Dolly’s publishing rights to the song, she balked, walking away from the sort of degrading deal that many other songwriters accepted. That choice, which some regarded at the time as crazy, enabled her to make millions more than she otherwise would have when Whitney Houston later recorded the song for the 1992 blockbuster film The Bodyguard, the second-highest grossing movie of the year. Tying a bow around the whole situation, Dolly, along with Presley impersonator Ronnie McDowell, sings the “I Will Always Love You” chorus toward the end of this track. If not the triumph of having the King himself sing her song, it is one in another sense: On an album stretching decades and the full breadth of the fairly loose “rock” genre—an album including some of rock’s most beloved songs—this Dolly original is among the best tracks.
For that matter, so is “I Want You Back,” which she cowrote with Kent Wells. The album’s greatest heart wrencher, it pairs Dolly with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler for a bluesy breakup tune. Over weepy organs and groaning guitars, the two seem to compete for the most poignant performance, marking an emotional summit for the album—and for recent rock history. However early or late Dolly came to appreciate the genre, she can definitely write in it.
But that should surprise no one. She’s been a rockstar from the start, carving out what’s become a wonderful career from the time she was about ten, always looking to improve and expand. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school, and she pushed record execs, who wanted to turn her into a bubblegum pop star, to let her record country music. When she was topping the country charts—when the safe thing to do was rinse, wax, repeat—then she pushed her career in a more pop-oriented direction, becoming one of the earliest crossover pop country artists.
And she had hits throughout—quite rockin’ ones, too, including “Jolene” and “9 to 5,” the Grammy-winning theme to the eponymous comedy, in which Dolly made her first silver screen appearance alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. It’s an ode to female empowerment that found new life in a 2019 episode of the sci-fi show The Orville. The character Heveena is the leader of a resistance movement against the barbaric Moclan culture, which views being born a female Moclan as an aberration—to be corrected via forced surgery. When she hears “9 to 5” aboard Captain Ed Mercer’s spaceship, she responds in amazement.
Heveena: Who is she?
Mercer: That’s . . . Dolly Parton.
Heveena: She speaks with the might of a hundred soldiers!
Mercer: Yeah, I guess she does.
Heveena: This is the voice of our revolution!
Later, she entreats an interplanetary council to intercede on behalf of the rights of female Moclans:
The history of moral progress can be measured by the expansion of fundamental rights to those who have been denied them. We ask only to be included in that expanding circle of justice. There is a visionary Earth poet, who I have recently come to cherish. With power and dignity, she boldly cried out, so that all the cosmos would know of her suffering, “Working nine to five, for service and devotion, you would think that I would deserve a fair promotion. Want to move ahead, but the boss won’t seem to let me. I swear sometimes that man is out to get me.” In the spirit of her courage—please—hear our voices.
It couldn’t be more fitting. In her fifty-plus-year career, Dolly has forged a path of female empowerment, showing, as she put it in “Rockstar,” “if you can dream it, you can have it.” In that sense at least, Dolly Parton has always been a rockstar. Nonetheless, we can count our lucky stars that she decided to stretch herself in this direction. Rock is better for it.
Click To Tweet
1. “Watch Dolly Parton’s New Olympic-Themed Music Video for ‘We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You,’” DollyParton.com, July 26, 2023, https://dollyparton.com/life-and-career/music/watch-dolly-partons-new-olympic-themed-music-video-for-we-are-the-champions-we-will-rock-you.