Dolly Parton Salutes Rock and Roll

The singer-songwriter discusses her new album, in which she plants her feet among ambitious and experimental women in rock music.

Dolly Parton
Photograph by Herb Ritts / AUGUST

Dolly Parton’s first-ever rock album, “Rockstar,” released in November, opens with a declaration. “I’m gonna be in rock and roll whether you two like it or not!” an imagined teen-age Parton hollers at her parents, who are complaining about the “noise” that she makes when shredding guitar. It is rock’s primal scene of intergenerational conflict: kids in bedrooms playing music that their parents just don’t understand. In music videos like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” the rebel-heroes play so loud that they catapult their fathers out of their houses. But Parton feminizes the tale, and uses it to frame an album that realigns rock with women. It isn’t necessary to kill the father, she suggests, when you can get by with a little help from your girlfriends.

Despite the record’s topicality—it was catalyzed by Parton’s induction last year into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—“Rockstar” reminds us that she has always been rock and roll, in the loosest yet truest sense of the term. Her gig as the girl singer on Porter Wagoner’s popular country-music show, which she joined in the late nineteen-sixties, was too small to contain the musical polymath, who would inform Barbara Walters, in 1977, that her goal was to become a “superstar.” The fiercest song on Parton’s new album, “World on Fire,” is perhaps less compelling for its social commentary—“Greedy politicians present and past / They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the ass,” she sings, without naming names—than for how it defies the patronizing image of Parton as America’s Sweetheart.

Parton performs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction-ceremony show, in November, 2022.Photograph by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic / Getty

When we spoke last month, Parton—done up in nylon and lace, and seated before a glittery silver star—discussed gender and tradition, and characteristically sidestepped politics. She explained how “Rockstar,” which comprises nine original compositions and twenty-one high-voltage covers, pushed her to grow as a writer and a vocalist. It was clear that she also approached the rock genre as a fan. She collaborates with several male artists, including Elton John and Paul McCartney, and just as many women. Brandi Carlile and Pink (not Mick Jagger) join her on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”; she sings “What’s Up?” with Linda Perry, of 4 Non Blondes, and “Magic Man” with Heart’s Ann Wilson. The album, in this way, dovetails with recent feminist historiographies of popular music, such as the NPR series “Turning the Tables” (less so with efforts to recover the role of Black women in music, although Parton had hoped to team up with Tina Turner prior to the singer’s passing, and Lizzo plays flute on Parton’s cover of “Stairway to Heaven”). Yes, Parton is a singular icon. But our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, reveals that she also sees herself as part of a collective: a foremother of, and a sister to, other ostentatiously ambitious and experimental women in music.

During our first conversation, in 2020, you said something that has stayed with me: that it’s not true that you’ve never been afraid, that you do experience fear, but your desire to do something has always been greater than your fear. What, if anything, scared you about this project?

Well, if you’re gonna take on a thing like this, you gotta make sure that you’re gonna do it good. Just making the decision to do a rock album was made easier when they decided to go ahead and put me in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I didn’t feel like I had earned it, but they told me that I had. That’s when I thought, Well, I’m going to have to at least have something to say now that I’m in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I had thought years ago that I might one day do a rock album, and it’d be more like a Linda Ronstadt-type album, with some girls singing great rock songs. But this [project] just opened up every window and every door in the world for me to call on some of these great artists who are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I wanted the rock people to be proud of me. I don’t want them to say, “Did you hear Dolly’s rock album? It’s O.K. She did O.K.” I wanted them to say, “Did you hear Dolly’s rock album? Man, she killed it.” So I went through those kind of emotions more than a deep fear. I was determined I was going to do it. And I thought, I’ll cover up any fear I might have by bringing on some of these great people who I know will make it great.

And you really went for it—I mean, you went big. The album includes nine original songs, including “World on Fire” and “I Want You Back.” And there are twenty-one classic songs, including such monster anthems as “Purple Rain,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Free Bird.” It seems like an incredibly audacious move for you to set some of your own original rock songs against some of the greatest rock songs ever made. What gave you the courage or the confidence to do that?

One good, strong reason was Kent Wells. He’s the guy that produced the album, and he’s been my musical director and guitar player for thirty years. I knew that he was a secret rocker. He knows music so well, any kind of music, but I knew that I could depend on him to help us [write] melodies that would fit in with what we were doing, where they really would be rock songs, not just a country version of a rock song. So I depended on him a lot. He’s strong on the melody. And I was stronger on the lyrics. But we worked together on both. And I thought [our original songs] really went well with the other songs that we had. But when you have classic songs like “Let It Be,” which I was so honored to get to sing with Paul [McCartney] and to have Ringo [Starr] on that, too, and songs from Peter Frampton [“Baby, I Love Your Way”] and Elton John [“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”], you think, If you’re going to put something [of your own on the record], you don’t want to just do it to say, “Oh, I wrote some of the songs, and I can publish them. I can make the money from the publishing.” Of course, I did think that. [Laughs.] But I wasn’t just thinking that. I thought, I need to have something really good so people know that I’m an artist, too. That I’m a writer, and that I can do this.

Parton at the Auditorium Theatre, in Chicago, 1977.Photograph by Paul Natkin / Getty

People who associate you with country might not realize that you can write in any style—gospel, Broadway show tunes. This record really highlights that. So you and Kent Wells wrote a lot of the songs together?

We did. And I wrote some on my own. I wrote the title song, “Rockstar.” I thought, I gotta have a little story to tell. And I thought, I’ll write about a girl rocker. So I kind of channelled Joan Jett and Melissa Etheridge, who both play great guitar, and they’re really, really great rockers. And they’re both on the album, by the way, doing different songs. But, anyway, I channelled them and wrote a little story about a rock star having a fight with her parents. And them thinking, Why in the world do you want to get into rock and roll? I thought it turned out real cute. Of course, it fits a boy rocker also.

I love that little skit in which you’re cranking it up and the folks are telling you to pipe down. It’s a reminder that rock and roll has long been a music of youthful rebellion, and a music of people on the margins of society who are speaking back to the status quo. So I’m wondering whether—given that you are at the center of our collective affection—there was any tension for you between being such a beloved figure and playing the part of a rebel rock star.

No, I figure people that know me and love me have to love me as I am, doing whatever it is I do. They know that I’m gonna take chances and that I feel like I have a right to be me, whatever it is I may try to do. I wasn’t afraid of that. Just like when I went out on my own, leaving country music, trying to do more pop, and getting into the movies. A lot of people thought at that time that I was making a big mistake, getting out of country music. I was going to fall on my face. But I thought, Well, I’ll fall on my face, but I can get up. I’ll fall on my butt now and then, but I’ll still get up, and I’ll try whatever. Another thing is that I’ve been in this music business for a long time—six decades, as a matter of fact—and people feel like they know me, and they’re willing to allow me to try things and to respect me for it. That’s what I hope. So, if that collective love you’re talking about is true, I think a big part of it is that people know I’m just willing to be me, willing to allow other people to be them and to accept things as they are—or, if I don’t accept them as they are, try to make a change and do good things.

I’m interested in the fact that so many of the songs on this album are covers. You’re renowned for writing your own songs. But since covering songs is a creative process in itself, I’m curious to know whether there were any patterns you detected in your approach to covering other people’s songs. Were there certain things you kept wanting to do in order to “Dollify” them?

Well, I tried hard not to Dollify them too much. I have a certain way of singing. I have a certain sound in my voice that’s very identifiable. I guess they call that being a stylist. I’m like Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline. It’s a voice you know when you hear it, whether you like it or not. But I was trying hard not to make these songs like country songs. I wanted the phrasing to be good. In country music, I can sing any way, anywhere—if I want to sing on top of the beat or lag along or whatever. But in rock and roll—and I had a lot of help from Kent Wells with that, too, with him saying, “You need to stay on the beat on this,” “You don’t need to trail too much here and there.” But I just wanted to choose songs that would fit my voice, that I felt my range would cover, and that I could sing with emotion without over-singing them or trying to sing gimmicky or any of that. I wanted to not have people think, Oh, she just sang all over that, or, She did too much on that. I tried to be respectful of the songs.

Parton performs at the Day on the Green concert, in Oakland, California, in May, 1978.Photograph by Richard McCaffrey / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty

There are some moments in which I feel you reaching, and it’s a glorious sound—take, for example, the outro to “Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you belt quite so high. How did covering these songs—even though, as you said, you wanted to do songs that would fit your range—push you to explore new edges as an artist or as a vocalist?

That’s a good question, because I really had some fun and some decisions to make when I was in the studio singing. For instance, when I was singing “Stairway to Heaven,” I was really into that song, but it had never crossed my mind that I would ever try to do that high part like Robert Plant did. As the song was going by, I knew that [part] was so, so high, that I was going to strain my milk doing it. But I was just going by there, and I thought, You know, I’m going to go for it. That was the kind of thing I would have thought we would just do with music or maybe do with background, but when I led into it I thought, I can hit it. I can do it. But I busted a gut. That was as high as I could go, but I did it.

I just went for it on some of the other songs, too—“Purple Rain,” or even “Free Bird.” I was listening to the music, and I thought, I’ve never had this chance before, I’ve never had this freedom to actually challenge myself with these great melodies. Because I write so much of my own stuff, I kind of live comfortably in that. But I thought, Well, I’m just going to go for it. The worst that can happen, we won’t use it. Nobody will ever know if it don’t sound good.

And, when I was singing with Ann Wilson in the studio, I thought, I can’t let her get ahead of me. I mean, of course, she can sing, but, buddy, I was right on her tail. I was just thinking, You hit that note, I’ll hit this one. You hit that one, I’ll hit that one. So we were in a good singing musical competition, but it was fun. Like I said, I didn’t know if I could do it. And a lot of the stuff—I surprised myself on some of the notes.

Do you feel like you can be a little freer to take those risks now, at this stage in your career? Like, you might not have gone for it in the studio however many years ago, but you’re willing to do it now?

Yeah, I think there’s a whole lot of freedom that comes with getting older. And, when you’ve done everything, you don’t have to answer to other people. It’s, like, why wouldn’t I be allowed to do this? You know, at my age—I’m seventy-seven years old, and I’m a rock star. I get a kick out of it. The title of the album—it was a little tongue-in-cheek. I thought, What am I going to call this album? Well, I’m going to call it “Rockstar,” duh. Anyway, the whole thing was just kind of fun for me. I took the music serious. I take my work serious, but at the same time I enjoy it.

Remember when I said earlier that I had often thought of doing a rock album? But, as the years went by, I thought, Nobody’s going to take me serious now, you know, getting older. But then it was just laid right in my hands when they put me in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And I am not one to miss timing. Timing means everything. And I always think [with] these things that a higher wisdom is speaking to me, saying, “Just do it. You got your chance. If you ever had a thought about doing it, do it now.”

So, when I was doing the rock album, I thought, Man, this is an opportunity for me as a singer and as an artist. And as a person, you know? I grew up loving these songs. I mean, we all loved the Beatles, and we all loved these great songs that we have grown up with.

You also collaborated with so many amazing artists. Thinking about gender stereotypes, the figure of the rebel rocker is usually a boy, but you claim it for women. Since you collaborate with so many female artists on this record, I’m wondering: Were you consciously trying to change the image of rock as a boys’ club by highlighting so many women?

I didn’t think of it to that depth. I just knew I was a girl, and I was going to do rock and roll. And I knew there were some great girl rock and rollers—especially, you know, in the early days, like Joan and Melissa and some of the others. And then, of course, I love singing with all these women. Many of these girls are my friends. So I thought, I’m going to ask some of them if they’ll join me.

With Joan, she was the sweetest thing. When I said I wanted to do “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” she said, “Oh, Dolly, don’t do that one. Everybody does that one. Why don’t we do ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’? It’s got a little more meat, and you got a little more depth than just singing ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.’ ” Which I thought was great, because she’s the writer! But people took the time—you know, these artists took time to say, “I’m glad you’re doing this. This is a cool move. I’ll help you all I can.”

I have so many sisters, and I just related to all of [my collaborators] like one of my sisters. And so it was conscious in the respect that I felt I needed to have a lot of these girls on here. I wasn’t trying to do any MeToo movement or make a big statement of any kind. But, with the songs that I wanted to do, these seemed to be the voices that I heard on them.

There’s a sense of continuity, of legacy, on this record. You bring that out with the reference to your song “I Will Always Love You,” on your collaboration with Miley Cyrus on “Wrecking Ball.” You’re singing with her on her song, but then, when you sing that line together at the end, she’s also singing with you on your song.

Yeah, well, I love Miley. I’ve known her since before she was born. She’s kind of like my fairy goddaughter, and we have a great deal of love for each other. We love to sing together, and I think our voices really work well together. Last year, I did a New Year’s show with her, in Miami, and she had the idea for us to sing “Wrecking Ball” as a duet and then we would sing my song “I Will Always Love You.”

Then, when I got ready to do the rock album, I thought, Wow, I’m going to try to incorporate a little bit of “I Will Always Love You” into this—into “Wrecking Ball,” which is one of my favorite songs ever (and certainly, since it was Miley, that made it twice as special). So I’m glad you liked that. That was my big idea, to sing some of those “I Will Always Love You” lines as an ad-lib in the background. And then how we ended, [by singing] “I will always love you,” the way the real record ends—I thought that was effective.

Absolutely. And your voices do blend and lock together so beautifully.

We’ve been singing a long time, and she’s grown up with my voice, and she likes my music. So she listens a lot, so she has a lot of those little inflections and things that I do with my voice. But she’s got such a powerful voice. She can take it and make it twice as good as I ever thought about. And we know where we’re going to go when we’re singing. I can pretty much anticipate what note she’s going to go for. So I know how to do little things around her, and vice versa. We’re so familiar with our voices. Or we’ll think at the same second, Wow, we can go here, let’s do this. It’s like what I was talking about with Ann Wilson. You’re just having a music moment there, with each other. And it works great.

I read somewhere that you had also hoped to collaborate with Tina Turner on this album. Is that right?

Yes. In fact, I had written a song that I thought would just be perfect for us. I had sent it over for her to hear. And then I got word back that she was in very bad health. That was really toward the end of her life. But they said she liked it, and said she was so sorry she didn’t get an opportunity to do it with me. But I would have loved for that to have happened. Because I loved Tina Turner, always have.

What was your immediate inspiration for the original song “World on Fire”? It has a tone that might surprise some of your fans.

The only way I know how to fight back is to write songs that say how I feel. And that song I felt led to write. I had finished the album altogether. We’d already done [all the] songs, and Kent said, “We got to stop somewhere.” But I went home that night, and that song just came to me, and I got up in the wee hours, wrote the song, and called Kent the next morning. I said, “We got to do another session, because I’ve written a song that I think has to be on this album.” It says everything I needed to say, what I felt needed to be said. It’s just me trying to throw some light out. Because we’re in a dark place. We need some light thrown on it.

I think the record itself is so passionate in so many ways—it gives voice to the passions people feel. I’m curious, though, about a line in “World on Fire.” You say, “Billy got a gun, Joey got a knife / Janie got a sign to carry in the fight.” Are you drawing an equivalence between armed violence and peaceful protest?

It was just what you see in the streets every day. I was trying to be as poetic as I could to try to get the point across: people are marching in the streets, people are killing one another, people are destroying each other, and the ones that are not doing that are carrying a sign that’s saying whatever. So it was just about what’s going on in the world. They’ve got their guns, they’ve got their knives, they’ve got their signs. . . . And I understand the frustration in everybody. I understand the frustration in myself. But the only way I know how to deal with it is to express it in music, because God has given me that voice. And so that’s what I will continue to do. And anytime I see that there’s a need that I can fill, or something that I can do personally to make life a little better, I will continue to do that.

To close out, I thought “Free Bird” was a really poignant way to end the record. You give us the rambling woman, whereas we’ve typically heard about the rambling man.

I’ve always loved that song, and that’s one of my husband’s favorite songs as well. But I think there’s a lot of women who have been in the music business, and especially in rock and roll, where, if you made your choice to have a career, you sometimes have to make that decision for yourself. So, to me, that was not that extreme, to sing that: I can’t stay long because I’ve got this career that I’ve got to have, so bye-bye, sweet, it’s been a sweet love. I got to get out of here, because I got some music to make, because that’s how I’m gonna make a living. If you want to hang around with me, well, you’re gonna do something else, and I’ll be back. I’ll bring us a lot of money home.  ♦