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17 November 2023

Dolly Parton’s Rockstar is a cheesy, moving, joyful covers album

It’s too long, and unavoidably corny. But this is such a fun endeavour that it’s hard to resist.

By Lauren O'Neill

In 2022, Dolly Parton rejected her nomination for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was – in true Dolly fashion – probably the politest and most humble refusal of an accolade any celebrity has ever issued.

“Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” she wrote in a statement posted on social media, “I don’t feel that I have earned that right.” That year, voters overlooked her protestations and she was inducted anyway.

No music lover with their head screwed on properly has ever doubted that Dolly Parton – a songwriter of such genius that she wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” in the same day – is the walking definition of a rock star, despite being, by trade, a country musician. With her defiantly flamboyant look and a stage presence that fills stadiums despite her diminutive stature, many would agree that there are few people who deserve their place in the Rock Hall more.    

In that 2022 statement, before she ultimately accepted the honour, Parton said that the nomination had inspired her to “put out a hopefully great rock ’n’ roll album at some point in the future, which I have always wanted to do!” Clearly galvanised by her inclusion, today (17 November) she releases her attempt in Rockstar, her 49th studio album.  

The record is a 30-track whopper comprised of cover versions, some performed with the original artist (to give you an idea, there’s “Every Breath You Take” with Sting, “Heart of Glass” with Debbie Harry, and, oh yeah, “Let It Be” with the two surviving Beatles). The list of guest vocalists is a who’s who of legacy rockers, from Ann Wilson of Heart and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, to Steve Tyler and Joan Jett.

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Parton clearly doesn’t need legitimising, but there’s the sense that in enlisting a number of her Rock Hall peers, she is accepting the esteem that the rock community holds her in, while challenging stereotypes of what constitutes rock. Alongside Steve Perry of Journey and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx (yes, really), Parton invites on popstars such as Lizzo (who plays the flute on “Stairway to Heaven”), Miley Cyrus and P!nk. 

Rockstar is, as duet and cover records of this type tend to be, a mixed bag. It’s patently too long (I could have done without the more middle-of-the-road tracks such as Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” or REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You”), and you have to go in with your capacity for corniness set to max. But it’s such a good-natured endeavour that it’s hard to care, and the highlights are a genuine thrill.

Most renditions are reasonably faithful to the original versions. It is a joy to hear Parton interpreting Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. She is 77 and her vocals are still, in that ineffable Dolly way, as moving as ever – the lyrics are transformed by her reedy tone and crisp enunciation into stories whose every word you hang on. The duets, too, are great fun. “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You” with her friend Stevie Nicks, is a stomping, down-home delight (with a particularly funny, self-deprecating ad-lib from Nicks about her sobriety), while “Heartbreaker” with Pat Benatar is, well, “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar – only with added Dolly Parton, ergo improving on the unimprovable. 

“Let It Be” is beautiful with Parton’s considered cadence layered over organ, and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with Elton John turns her into a more than worthy stand-in for the late, great George Michael. Indeed, across Rockstar she takes on some of the most familiar songs ever written and manages to say something new with them; something quintessentially Dolly. The songs are classics and yet you’d swear she wrote them herself. Despite the length, despite the cheesiness, you can’t really come away from this record without the sense that it is the work of a musical hero – and, though she may once have doubted it, a proper rock star.

[See also: The confessions of Robbie Williams]

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