Dolly Parton (Really) Rocks

Credit…Rick Diamond/Getty Images

By Lindsay Zoladz

Dear listeners,

At age 77, and with nearly 50 (!) solo studio releases to her name, Dolly Parton just scored the highest charting album of her career, the mammoth double LP “Rockstar,” which debuted on this week’s Billboard 200 at No. 3. (Darn those young whippersnappers Drake and Taylor Swift for standing in the way of Parton’s first No. 1!)

“Rockstar” is not an album so much as a referendum on how incredibly well-liked Parton is at this moment. She seems to have drafted up a long scroll of dream collaborators, and — anything for Dolly! — each one of them picked up the phone: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Joan Jett, Miley Cyrus, Lizzo, Elton John, Rob Halford from Judas Priest … I could go on. And “Rockstar” does go on, for an indefatigable 30 tracks, clocking in at 2 hours and 22 minutes. When I finally finished listening to it, I expected someone to hand me one of those foil blankets you get after you run a marathon.

While “Rockstar” might end up one of Parton’s most commercially successful albums, it’s not one of her best. (And isn’t that how it always goes?) My main quibble is the premise itself. Last year, when Parton was nominated for inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she initially tried to take her name off the ballot because she didn’t consider herself a rock artist. “This has, however, inspired me to put out a hopefully great rock ’n’ roll album at some point in the future,” she wrote in a statement. (She ended up changing course and accepted her induction.)

I disagree with the notion that Dolly Parton wasn’t a rock star until she released an album called “Rockstar” — it feels like too narrow and literal an understanding of genre. Sure, Parton is a country artist at heart, but she’s also a dynamic, take-no-bull cultural icon with a powerful voice and a flair for spectacle. And, as I argue with today’s playlist, she’s been reshaping rock ’n’ roll in her own style for her entire career.

The songs I’ve chosen put some of the best moments of “Rockstar” (featuring duet partners like Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty) in conversation with older songs in Parton’s vast catalog. They also highlight her history of covering — and completely transforming — rock songs from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Collective Soul and Neil Young.

Parton is a living legend, and it’s wonderful that she’s continuing to reach fresh milestones and new audiences seven decades (!) into her career. But we certainly didn’t need approval from the notoriously suspect Rock Hall to confirm that Dolly Parton rocks. She’s been telling us that, in her own way, all along.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

1. Dolly Parton: “Shine”

One of Parton’s great stylistic pivots came in the late ’90s, when she revisited her bluegrass roots for the appropriately titled album “The Grass Is Blue.” This imaginative rework of Collective Soul’s 1993 alternative-rock hit “Shine” — which earned Parton a very deserved Grammy for best female country vocal performance — comes from her second return-to-bluegrass album, “Little Sparrow,” released in 2001. Say it with her now: “Yeah.” (Listen on YouTube)

2. Dolly Parton featuring John Fogerty: “Long as I Can See the Light”

One of the best tracks on “Rockstar” is this soulful duet on a Creedence Clearwater Revival classic. Parton and Fogerty’s voices mesh well together, and both sound at home emphasizing the original song’s gospel influence. (Listen on YouTube)

3. Kesha featuring Dolly Parton: “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”

There’s a special reason that Kesha included a cover of this 1980 Parton hit on her 2017 album “Rainbow”: It was co-written by her mother, the singer-songwriter Pebe Sebert. The original is a delicate ballad, but this later version features more of a rock arrangement, with chugging electric guitars and smoldering vocals from Kesha and Parton. (Listen on YouTube)

4. Dolly Parton: “Dumb Blonde”

“Just because I’m blonde don’t mean I’m dumb,” Parton sings on her first charting single, “and this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.” Released in 1966, “Dumb Blonde” is technically a country tune, but it also proves she had a saucy rock-star attitude from the start. (Listen on YouTube)

5. Dolly Parton featuring Stevie Nicks: “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You”

For her contribution to “Rockstar,” Nicks offered Parton a previously unreleased track she’d written for Fleetwood Mac. It’s fun to hear it get a second life here — and to hear Parton and Nicks’s chummy chemistry on the spoken-word parts. (Listen on YouTube)

6. Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris: “After the Gold Rush”

Man, what a cover. Parton famously teamed up with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for the hit 1987 album “Trio,” and this chill-inducing interpretation of a Neil Young classic appeared on the sequel, “Trio II,” from 1999. Their harmonies are otherworldly. (Listen on YouTube)

7. Dolly Parton: “Stairway to Heaven”

Though on “Rockstar” Parton includes a more traditionally “rock” cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (featuring Lizzo and … her flute, “Sasha Flute”), I prefer this one, from her 2002 bluegrass album, “Halos & Horns.” (Listen on YouTube)

8. Dolly Parton featuring Linda Perry: “What’s Up?”

Parton seems to find something personally resonant in her “Rockstar” take on this ’90s anthem, as she transforms a song about a quarter-life crisis into a deeper meditation on time passing. Bonus points for the way she enunciates the word “peculiar.” (Listen on YouTube)

9. Dolly Parton: “Baby I’m Burnin’”

Though many purists decried Parton’s pivot to pop in the 1980s, in the rearview it’s easier to appreciate it as a demonstration of her range, and an occasional foray into more rock-oriented sounds. Gotta love those laser sound effects, too. (Listen on YouTube)

10. Dolly Parton featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Free Bird”

Dolly Parton covering “Free Bird.” Backed by members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is now something that exists, and the world is better for it. (Listen on YouTube)

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,


The Amplifier Playlist

Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“Dolly Parton (Really) Rocks” track list
Track 1: Dolly Parton, “Shine”
Track 2: Dolly Parton featuring John Fogerty, “Long as I Can See the Light”
Track 3: Kesha featuring Dolly Parton, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”
Track 4: Dolly Parton, “Dumb Blonde”
Track 5: Dolly Parton featuring Stevie Nicks, “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You”
Track 6: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, “After the Gold Rush”
Track 7: Dolly Parton, “Stairway to Heaven”
Track 8: Dolly Parton featuring Linda Perry, “What’s Up?”
Track 9: Dolly Parton, “Baby I’m Burnin’”
Track 10: Dolly Parton featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird”

Bonus Tracks

If you’re looking for even more Dolly reading, might I suggest this essay I wrote in 2019 on Parton’s uncommonly high approval rating? It has a special place in my heart, since it’s the first thing I ever wrote for The Times. And yes, all these years later, I’m still wondering about those tattoos.

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