In 1977, a flurry of publicity brought the news that country superstar Dolly Parton—already famous for her songs “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”—was crossing over to the mainstream. Alanna Nash’s intensively reported book Dolly documents this moment as a rancorous one, reminiscent of Dylan going electric. Repeatedly, Parton is prompted to align herself with a genre. “I really prefer to call it Dolly Parton’s music,” she says to Nash. “Why should it have a label?” Rock, she tells another interviewer, “was something I’d wanted to do for years, but I wasn’t in a position to…. I don’t necessarily want to be a rock and roll star, but I want to be able to go into any market, to express myself totally.”
By then, the popularity of Parton’s songs with bona fide female rock stars like Patti Smith and Tina Turner had finally put her in such a position. Yet Parton’s crossover attempt ultimately failed to find advocacy from rock critics. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau quipped, “The problem with Dolly’s crossover is her rich but rather tiny voice, a singular country treble that’s unsuited to rock, where little-girlishness works only as an occasional novelty.” Rolling Stone’s Tom Carson was more brutal: “Outside the stylized [country and western] framework, her voice and stance seem ludicrous.” Subpar material (1978’s disco-tinged Heartbreaker) was their primary complaint, but judgment was also cast on Parton herself: her musical talents had their charms, but they didn’t quite measure up to real rock stardom.
This brazenly sexist and obliquely classist reception did not stop Parton from continuing to record rock music. Just as other artists kept embracing her songwriting, she showed discernment in choosing others’ songs to interpret, with often intriguing results. In 1979, she rendered the Beatles’ “Help!” as a brisk, airy ballad; 1980’s concept album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs explores folk rock with moving versions of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” And especially exciting rock experiments came with 2001’s Little Sparrow, recorded with the innovative bluegrass band Nickel Creek. Daringly tackling Collective Soul’s grunge-era classic “Shine,” Parton’s voice is confident and clear as a crystal bell. Though she’s accompanied by banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, it’s pretty evident that she rocks.
So what does an artist once deemed “unsuited to rock” sing on an album called Rockstar, fresh from her 2022 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and joined by everyone from Melissa Etheridge to Sting? Along with a few songs of her own, the biggest hits by the most fixed bodies in the rock firmament seem a fair place to start. Rockstar does indeed include a bunch of classic-rock anthems by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, and Lynyrd Skynyrd; it also highlights a few more subversive and stylistically groundbreaking rock icons, including Prince, Stevie Nicks, Heart, and Queen.
Aside from the symbolic import of its selections, the music of Rockstar shows the same thoughtfulness and precision found elsewhere in Parton’s work. She seeks neither to replicate nor to radically transform these songs, and instead subtly yet convincingly reimagines them.
“Let It Be” is exemplary of this method. Paul McCartney’s performance of perhaps his most famous song has always been emotionally cool, suggesting a stoic detachment from its depiction of divine or dreamlike solace. As if sensing that distance, Parton’s version moves in closely. With a stately pace, the reassuring sweetness of her tone, and (ace up her sleeve at least since “I Will Always Love You”) a spoken-word refrain, its more vulnerable and spiritual register opens up the song.
This delicate dynamic between source material and interpretation reminds us of Parton’s brilliance as a musician, still frequently misunderstood or underestimated—her vocal control, her phrasing, her sense of compositional form, and her joyful, engaged approach to collaboration. And so Rockstar cannily defines rock stardom not by a fixed sound or attitude, but by the idealistic, demanding terms Parton set for herself decades ago: having the freedom to express yourself, totally.
Record label: Butterfly/Big Machine Similar artists: Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Nickel Creek Representative lyric: “Whisper words of wisdom, / let it be.” Best track: “Let It Be” Ideal listening conditions: An early-morning walk on a clear day