Dolly Parton vowed “to earn her keep” as a 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. The 77-year-old country-music icon — a barrier-breaking singer-songwriter known as much for crossover hits like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5” as her big hair, high heels and glittering stage wardrobe — initially declined the nomination because she just didn’t feel she deserved it. “I really wanted to feel like I had a place there or, at least, that I had earned it,” she explains during a phone call from her manager Danny Nozell's soundstage in Nashville.
So she began recording demos of her and husband Carl Dean’s favorite rock classics for what she envisioned as a 12- or 13-song CD. She was in the middle of singing The Beatles’ “Let It Be” when she had an idea.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if Paul McCartney would be willing to sing on this with me,’” she says. “So I reached out. He said not only would he sing — he would play the piano. After we put that down, then I thought, Oh, my God! Ringo [Starr] and Paul are the only two left of The Beatles. I wonder if Ringo would play [drums] on it.”
He did, along with Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood, who provided additional percussion, and Peter Frampton, who contributed a guitar solo.
It was the first of 21 covers recorded with a stunning array of rock-pop-country heavyweights — everyone from Elton John to Miley Cyrus — for “Rockstar,” a 30-track release set to drop Friday, Nov. 17, on Butterfly Records. The rest are Parton originals, some of which feature contributions such as Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford’s vocals on “Bygones” and former Bon Jovi axman Richie Sambora’s guitar work and vocals on the title song.
“I thought, Well, if it works, great. If not, I’m OK to do it by myself,” Parton says of her mindset when approaching artists.
Among Parton’s favorites are The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” to which lead singer-turned-solo superstar Sting added backing vocals. “He went way beyond the call of duty to make this really good — he just kept putting layers and layers [of vocals],” she marvels. She describes the fun she had in a Nashville studio recording Stevie Nicks’ “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You” with the Fleetwood Mac songstress and solo artist and the Clint Ballard Jr.-penned “You’re No Good,” made famous by Linda Ronstadt, with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. (Ronstadt suffers from the degenerative disease progressive supranuclear palsy and is no longer able to sing.)
“We felt like we were onstage together,” she enthuses. “It was more like a performance with each of them than a recording.” Cutting Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light” with former lead singer and guitarist John Fogerty was a special thrill. “Creedence Clearwater was my favorite band and one of Carl’s as well,” she says. “We just got the band together, went in like the old days, just had a three-hour session, recorded that song, stood face to face in our isolated booths. We could see each other, we could feel what we were doing. And we just had the best time. People don’t record like that anymore.”
Parton divulges that not everyone on her wish list was available to reinterpret a song with her. She asked country star Chris Stapleton to sing on Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s “Night Moves” because “at that time [Bob] was having some trouble with his voice.” Meeting a deadline to get a track listing to manufacturers for a pressing of a four-LP set derailed her plans to work with Mick Jagger, who urged her to select a Rolling Stones staple other than “Satisfaction.” (“I’ve done that one to death,” she recalls the head Stone explaining.) She ended up recording it with Pink and Brandi Carlile.
“I used to hear people say it took a year or two to do a rock album,” she says. “I thought, What a crock! How in the world can it take that long? You can have a country album out and pretty much do it in three months if you’re working at it, having it ready and out. But it took me a year — it took me a whole year — from the time I started until I met the deadline for the vinyls.”
The most flattering decline came from Robert Plant after hearing her demo of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” a song the group’s former frontman has famously “ambivalent feelings” about, as Rolling Stone once described it. (He recently sang it for the first time in 16 years at a cancer charity fundraiser in England, reportedly moved by a donor’s offer of a six-figure contribution for the performance.) Parton recounts a conversation in which he said, “God, Dolly, I don’t know what I could do. It sounds fantastic, what you did.” She asked if he’d try to improve upon it anyway.
“He said, ‘No. I’ll mess it up. I’m telling you, it’s perfect like it is. And if I thought I could make it better, I would be glad to try,’” she recalls. “Anyway, he’s a friend, so I just took him at his word and went on with it.” Lizzo added extra star power by playing flute.
Parton won’t be touring in support of “Rockstar.” She stopped hitting the road some time ago so she could work on a wide range of other projects, from acting and producing TV shows and movies to writing musicals and working on philanthropic endeavors such as her Imagination Library, a program that mails free books to children from birth to age 5. In the last month alone, she’s not only worked to launch the album but released Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones ($50, Ten Speed Press), a book in which she tells the story behind her passion for fashion, and opened the HeartSong Lodge & Resort, a second hotel connected to the Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The beloved superstar still isn’t completely comfortable being a rock-hall inductee.
“But now I feel better, knowing I really do have a rock album that people can refer to as the years go by, when I’m long gone,” she says.