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Dolly Parton On Becoming A 'Rockstar': 'I Worked Hard To Earn The Rights To Even Sing These Iconic Songs'

16 November 2023 | 11:24 am | Mary Varvaris

"I love being able to challenge myself, and I just wanted it to be good."

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton (Credit: Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy of Butterfly Records)

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This time last year, Dolly Parton was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – an honour she didn’t think she deserved.

She stood shoulder to shoulder with rock and heavy metal icons, performing one of her most beloved tracks, Jolene, alongside Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, EurythmicsAnnie Lennox and Dave Stewart, Pat Benatar, Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, and country singer Brandi Carlile. Immediately, the respect and admiration each of those musicians held for Dolly’s expansive body of work was evident.

If we backtrack to March 2022, though, Dolly rejected her nomination to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Declining the nomination, she wrote on social media: “Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, I don’t feel that I have earned that right.”

By the time May rolled around, she had accepted the honour and would later be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame next to Carly Simon, Eminem, Pat Benatar, Duran Duran and Lionel Richie. Judas Priest, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also received Musical Excellence honours.

And so, following her induction into those hallowed rock halls, Dolly made a plan: if the music world was going to crown her a rockstar, she was going to prove to herself – and any remaining naysayers – that she is just as rock and roll as her fellow inductees. As if we didn’t know she rocked already.

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In January 2023, Dolly appeared on the panel talk show The View and teased her new album, Rockstar, for the first time. “If I’m going to be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I better do something to earn it,” she said. “So, I’m doing a rock ‘n’ roll album, and I’m having a lot of the rock stars that I met that night be on the album with me.”

And that’s when she unleashed a barrage of name-drops. Paul McCartney. P!nk. John Fogerty. Stevie Nicks. Steve Perry. The list goes on, but you get the gist: Dolly was going to make a rock album, and she wasn’t going to do it without a little help from her friends.

Beyond her induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Dolly Parton is an inductee of the Songwriters, Grammy, Country, Gospel and Happiness Halls of Fame. She’s an eleven-time Grammy winner, ten-time CMA Award winner, five-time ACM winner, four-time People’s Choice Award winner, and three-time American Music Award winner. Her achievements and legacy remain enormous.

Since the 1960s, Dolly Parton has found success in every decade, reinventing herself when she needed to and offering the most sublime, unforgettable country music to the world – all in her signature style modelled on the “town tramp”. Her influence knows no bounds, inspiring the likes of Rob Halford, Miley Cyrus, Alison Krauss, Kesha, and Reba McEntire, among many others. The music world as we know it wouldn’t be the same without her.

Last night, Parton beamed into the ARIA Awards via satellite to present the Best Country Award to Fanny Lumsden, but before then, she told The Music that the Australian artist she’d love to collaborate with is Keith Urban – born in New Zealand but raised in Caboolture, Queensland. “Although he’s over here with us now, I think our voices are just beautiful together,” Parton says over Zoom with an array of guitars and her Rockstar vinyl behind her.

In 2005, the pair worked together on Dolly’s song, The Twelfth Of Never, from her album Those Were The Days. “I did a song with him years and years and years ago. So, I'd still love to someday do a great song with Keith – a great duet – I think our voices would be perfect together. But I'm sure any number of them [Australian singers] would make great duet partners.”

She has another connection with Australia: In July, an ABC news report showed that Parton’s literacy program for disadvantaged families, the Imagination Library, has made significant strides since it began in the city of Tamworth in 2019.

In Tamworth, over 3,200 children receive a book in their mailbox every month, from birth until they’re five years old.

Before the program came to Tamworth, speech pathologist Kelly Makepeace recalled to the ABC, “A number of communities in the Tamworth local government area had children three to four times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable in language and communication.”

Claire Galea, a researcher with United Way, has found that 65 per cent of children in Tamworth were read to by their parents, which is “nearly double the average Australian child”.

Dolly Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995. The program supports all children until age five, regardless of family income. “I think it's important that we all continue to do whatever we can,” Parton says, beaming at the progress the Imagination Library has made in just one Australian suburb. “I'm very proud of the Imagination Library, and I'm very proud of the fact that we are able to reach those places where they don't normally get the kind of things that a lot of people do, but we've made it an effort to try to reach the out-of-the-way places in different parts of the world.

“And, so, I think that's great that we're growing with leaps and bounds and will continue to give great books to children all over the world, reach out and reach as many kids as we can, and put as many books in the hands of as many children as we can. That's our whole mission. And so far, we've given 222 million books to date. That's a lot of books.”

Parton’s generosity is out of this world, just like her songwriting chops. Her skills are clear to see from 1967’s Hello, I’m Dolly, and only grew stronger with the stories within 1971’s Coat Of Many Colours, through to her disco LP Heartbreaker, to 1980s working class anthem, 9 To 5. No matter the decade, her music reigned: in 2016, Parton scored her first #1 country album in 25 years with Pure & Simple. She released another three albums after that, and this week will unveil her 49th solo album, Rockstar.

She absolutely rose to the occasion. For the first time, Dolly got political with World On Fire. She’s never made an album like this one, that’s for sure. She dressed in outfits we’d never seen her in before – just in time for the release of her new book, Behind The Seams: My Life In Rhinestones. A story that plots her life through the clothes that made her, it’s a unique book packed with highly entertaining recollections of her life, with 450-colour photographs commemorating the occasion.

The book “pretty much” sums her up as a person and personality, the things she’s worn through the years – her fashion, her style, “whether stylish or not, is still my style,” Parton explains. She adds, “If you're true to yourself, I think that's always going to be in style – to be your own person and to be willing to be your own person.

“If you can be allowed to be your own person, that's even better. But I did it whether I was allowed to or not because I just always wanted to wear what I felt good in, what I felt comfortable in, what I felt creative in,” she says. “I think, if, whatever you wear, you feel good in it, then it inspires you to do whatever it is you're capable of doing. So, I just always believe that fashion is what you make it.”

Something that Lzzy Hale from the band Halestorm mentioned in a previous The Music interview resonates as we discuss Rockstar: “It doesn't matter if you're into country, it doesn't matter if you're a pop star… it doesn't matter if you're a rock star, everybody wants to sling on a guitar and rock.” So, did Dolly feel like a rock star while making the titular album?

“Yes, I kind of did – I really got into it with the clothes that I wore and the costumes that we dressed in; I wanted it to be a complete thing,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well if I'm gonna have 30 of the best rock songs and greatest artists in the business, I need to make this whole thing very special’. So, I have to honestly say, I felt like a rock star for that. I still am right now, while in this little circle of rock. Maybe I'll not feel so much like a rock star after the first of the year [2024], but I've really enjoyed this moment.”

“When they put me in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, they put him [Rob Halford] in that night, and I had a chance to [catch up] with him when we were doing commercials and when we were in rehearsals for things,” she shares. “And I realised that he was a big fan of mine – he and his family, through the years – and he started mentioning songs of mine, you know, Coat Of Many Colours, Down From Dover [from 1970’s The Fairest Of Them All] and things that I knew he'd have to be a fan.

“And so, when I got ready to do this rock album, I asked him if he would sing on it, [and] he said he would be honoured. And I thought he killed it. I loved it. Kent Wells and I wrote the song [Bygones], and we wrote it with that kind of feel in mind. And so, I thought it fit really well. That’s one of my favourite songs on the album. And a big part of because of Rob.”

And Bygones wouldn’t be Bygones without the other special guests on the track, Nikki Sixx and John 5, both playing for Mötley Crüe. “Well, you know your rock, don’t you girl?” Parton laughs. “You know the musicians and the singers; that’s cool.”

Rock music honestly suits Dolly. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the stunning Open Arms. Initially released by Journey in 1982 and featuring Steve Perry on Parton’s version, she revives the kind of rock ballad we don’t hear all that often anymore.

“Steve Perry is singing with me on it, and he's the one that had the original on that years ago – it was a big hit.” Citing Carl, her husband of nearly 50 years, and his love of rock music (she called him a “rock and roll freak” in a recent interview with The Guardian), Parton shares, “My husband always loved it and always thought I should have recorded it with Kenny Rogers, but I never got a chance to do that.

“So, when I started doing the rock album, I thought, well, I'm going to record Open Arms, and then I’m going to ask Steve Perry to sing it with me. I wish I had written it.” Another song Parton wishes she wrote is on her new album, and that’s Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus.

Recalling that she loved Wrecking Ball from the moment she heard it, Parton says, “The way she sang it was just incredible. I think that's one of the best songs that’s been out in the last 25 years or so, if not ever. Anyway, Miley and I love each other very much. We like singing together, and I think we sing really good together. When I started do the rock album, [I said], ‘Well, I have to have Miley, and I love Wrecking Ball, so why don't we just do Wrecking Ball?’ And, so, we did, and it turned out really good. Did you like it?”

That “Did you like it?” is just one moment that showcases Dolly’s humility around making Rockstar. She’s not here to show up Miley Cyrus, Elton John, or The Beatles; her only intention is to honour (and salute) those who rock and accept her Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee title. Does she feel like she’s earned her place and those accolades?

“I think I have. I mean, I didn't know that I had,” she admits. “Well, I'm sure there are greater people than me that deserve to be in there more than me, but since I am in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I think [with] this album, I brought so many great artists back into this album that are not in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame that deserve to be.

“I felt like I had to not only earn my keep, I tried to pay homage to a lot of these great artists that should be in there that are not and to the ones that are that I've gotten the opportunity to sing with.”

Parton put everything she had into this album. She wanted to create an album of songs that she could sing well; she wanted the original songwriters in the rock world to say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good’; she wanted to inspire other country singers who want to take on rock. “I worked hard as a singer, trying to earn the rights to even sing these great, iconic songs,” Parton says. She put her heart and soul into it and felt “very inspired.”

“When I was in the studio, [I was] just thinking of all these great artists through the times, all those great songs that these people had spent hours working on a song so good that it would become an iconic song,” she shares. “So, there was a lot of emotions, a lot of thought, a lot of feelings that I had. It was a labour of love and a challenge for me. But I love being able to challenge myself, and I just wanted it to be good. And hopefully it is.”

Rockstar will be released on Friday November 17 via Dolly Parton’s independent Butterfly Records. Behind The Seams is out now.