Dolly Parton has always been a rock star – even if she hasn’t necessarily felt worthy of that title. We’re not talking the throwing-TVs-out-of-hotel-windows caricature that’s often associated with the moniker, but in the way that she’s an adulation-inspiring, larger-than-life musical force who’s consistently blazed new trails and changed the world. Throughout her career, the Queen of Country has donated to young people’s educations, launched schemes that gifts books to children around the globe, and helped fund research that led to the creation of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Yet, when she was nominated to join the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame last year, she initially removed herself from the running. “Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated […] I don’t feel that I have earned that right,” she wrote on Instagram last March. Eventually, she changed her mind and, as she was inducted into the institution later that year, she declared: “I’m a rock star now!”
That feeling of not being worthy of a place in the Hall Of Fame inspired her to, for the 49th solo record of her career, make her first rock album. It seems that any initial timidness about entering such territory has well and truly disappeared – on ‘Rockstar’, Parton fully embraces big riffs and, on the record’s artwork, the leopard print and studs associated with a particular time in the genre’s history. In fact, she goes so all-in on rock’n’roll that the album spans a whopping 30 tracks – and runs for two-and-a-half hours.
‘Rockstar’ is a bona fide epic, then, and it does come with some gigantic moments that live up to its marathon length. The tracklist is largely made up of covers of a raft of classics, and the album’s first third comes to a close with a sprawling, smoky take on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. Minutes later, it continues with a Joan Jett & The Blackhearts-backed spin on the former Runaways singer’s 1988 single ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You’ (complete with cheesy dialogue between the two icons before the first verse hits). Both showcase the rich emotion in Dolly’s powerful vocals, the former shot through with melancholy while the latter rasps with angst not usually associated with the country star.
The songs featured on this record don’t just stick to the harder, noodling end of the rock spectrum, though. Instead, ‘Rockstar’ traverses the broad breadth of rock, even veering into poppier territory. There are satisfying versions of Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’ (featuring Debbie Harry) and The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ (backed by an all-star cast of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton and Mick Fleetwood – most of the covers here are done with those who originally released the song). Best of all is a team-up with Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus on her ‘Wrecking Ball’ that sounds so stately and sublime you’ll almost forget the original. At the cover’s end, the pair slip in an interpolation of ‘I Will Always Love You’, Parton’s 1974 single that would later be turned into a soul classic by Whitney Houston.
For all the brilliant bits of ‘Rockstar’, there’s also a lot of filler. Listening to it in one sitting often feels like a never-ending slog. Perhaps that’s because, after decades in the biz, Parton’s rolodex is stuffed with big names she can call on – and you try deciding who to cut from the likes of Elton John, Steven Tyler, Stevie Nicks, Brandi Carlile, Lizzo and her flute (a glorious addition to a version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’), and many, many more.
But maybe the album didn’t need nine original songs, which range from the on-the-nose opening title track that finds Parton taking on a teenage character determined to show her parents she’s “gonna be in rock’n’roll whether you two like it or not”, to the fun, blues-y romp of ‘What Has Rock And Roll Ever Done For You’. That song features Nicks and was originally written for Fleetwood Mac about an affair she had way back with someone “famous and rich” in the rock’n’roll scene. The band rejected it, saying it wasn’t good enough, but here it shines.
Parton’s 49th album might not be perfect, but it certainly lands an emphatic punch. If ever she still needs convincing that she deserves the title of rock star, all she needs to do is press play.