How Dolly Parton corralled a Who's Who of rock royalty to record her landmark Rockstar album: "There's more aggression in rock'n'roll – you've got to treat it with respect"

Dolly Parton in a car wearing sunglasses
(Image credit: Butterfly Records)

The voice is unmistakable. As is the playful peal of laughter that follows. “Hey there, is that Rob ‘Halford’ Hughes? Good mornin’!” It’s 10am in Nashville, and the incontestable legend that is Dolly Parton is on the phone to Classic Rock

She’s evidently in good spirits. And so she should be. At 77, country music’s resident superstar is the author of a somewhat unlikely crossover: a fully-booted, leather-suited, guitar-squealing rock album. And while there’s a persuasive argument that Dolly Parton has, in essence, always been a rock star, now we have tangible proof. 

Nor is the aforementioned Rob Halford reference just a random piece of alliteration. The Judas Priest frontman is one of a number of guests – an entire shedload, in fact – who appear on Parton’s Rockstar. It’s an album with an embarrassment of riches: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks, Steven Tyler, Debbie Harry, Peter Frampton, Joan Jett, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Richie Sambora… And that only covers about half of it. 

Like most things Parton has put her shoulder to over the years, Rockstar doesn’t deal in short measures. It comprises a mammoth 30 tracks, of which roughly two thirds are covers.

These are songs swiped straight from rock’s high table, from Satisfaction to Stairway To Heaven, Let It Be to Purple Rain, Free Bird to We Are The Champions

“My husband Carl is a big rock fan,” Parton explains. “I’ve heard so many of the great rock songs over the years, because that’s the only thing he ever plays. We’ve been together for fifty-nine years now, so you can imagine how embedded that is. But of course, I had some personal favourites as well. I also had to pick songs that I thought I could sing well, that Ithought I could do justice to. Or at least to try to be as impressive as I could, because I wanted the rock field to be proud of me. I wanted them to say: ‘That’s pretty good! I didn’t know she had it in her!’” 

Interviewing her is a slightly surreal experience. There are those fabulously identifiable Southern tones and inflections in her voice, of course. And a sense that, for her, this is an art she mastered many moons ago. But she weighs my questions with due thought and attention, often with a healthy degree of self-deprecation. She also chuckles a lot. 

During the course of the next hour, Classic Rock discovers that her decision to record the album was shaped by both outside events and her own sense of guilt. There’s plenty more too. Not least the fact that Rockstar has a number of precedents in her back catalogue. She talks about her early years, her single-minded ambition, her regrets over Elvis, being nervous about playing Glastonbury, future plans, her picky husband, and what she really thought of that White Stripes cover of her classic Jolene. 

Ultimately, Rockstar represents the latest challenge in an extraordinary career. 

“I’ve made my living doing country music and being a country girl, but making this album just felt natural,” she says. “So I think it was meant to be and I’m glad I’ve done it. I’m proud of how it’s turned out. And now I’m gonna have it as part of my legacy."


In February 2022, Parton found herself nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The announcement – which also proposed the likes of MC5, New York Dolls, Judas Priest, Rage Against The Machine and Pat Benatar – came as something of a shock. In response, she sent a letter to the foundation, asking to be removed from the ballot. 

“Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I don’t feel that I have earned that right,” Parton wrote. “I really do not want votes to be split because of me, so I must respectfully bow out.” 

The Hall was having none of it, however. They explained that ballots had already been sent out to voters, justifying her nomination by adding that, from its inception, “rock’n’roll has had deep roots in rhythm & blues and country music. It is not defined by any one genre, rather a sound that moves youth culture. Dolly Parton’s music impacted a generation of young fans and influenced countless artists that followed”. 

Parton duly decided to accept the offer ifshe was selected. In early May, she was officially announced as an inductee. This in turn brought up a promise that Parton had made in her original letter, namely that the whole affair had inspired her to put out a rock’n’roll album at some point in the future. 

“I didn’t feel worthy of the induction,” she confesses now. “And I will never deny that. I know so many great artists – like Meat Loaf, for instance – that were never in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. So when they first told me, I thought: ‘Damn, I can’t let them put me in there, when so many of these great people have spent their whole lives in rock.’ I didn’t really understand all the reasons they do it, but they put me in anyway. 

“So I accepted gracefully,” Parton continues, “but I thought: ‘Well, I’m gonna have to earn it,’ because I’m like my daddy, I don’t want nothing I ain’t earned. Through the years I’d thought that I might one day do a rock album. And timing is everything. So that’s really what motivated me to record Rockstar, because I had pretty much given up on the idea, because of my age. That’s when I thought: ‘No, I’m gonna do it.’” 

At the HOF ceremony, held in LA last November, Parton performed in a black studded latex jumpsuit, with a bejewelled black guitar slung around her waist. She proceeded to play Rockin’, a brand new song written for the occasion, complete with shredding solo. The lyrics drew from her love of rock’n’roll while growing up in rural Tennessee.

“I’ve been rockin’ since the day I was born,” she says, “listening to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and all these people that I loved in my youth. And so I just kind of put together a little song to explain that whole experience of going into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I was thinking back to those days, when I used to carry around my little transistor radio.” 

Parton wasted no time in inviting collaborators to appear on the proposed album. Some of them – Benatar, Halford, Pink, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile and Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon – had also performed at the same Hall Of Fame bash. Others heeded the call directly: “I said something at the Hall Of Fame like: ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing a rock album. If there are any rock stars out there that want to help me…’ or something to that effect. Then the next week, different people called and said: ‘Well, if you’re serious then I’d love to be on it.’” 

There was no shortage of takers. Parton and longtime producer Kent Wells got to work in the studio. 

“We started putting people on there and ended up with thirty songs,” Parton recalls. Not everyone could make it, though. Mick Jagger’s recording schedule with the Stones meant that he passed up the opportunity to duet on Satisfaction. And the dream Jimmy Page/Robert Plant reunion was never likely to happen for Stairway To Heaven. Those two songs also highlight the potential issues behind Rockstar. By daring to take on such familiar touchstones, isn’t she inviting trouble? It’s something she admits to being all too aware of. 

“My husband is a huge fan of Led Zeppelin and thinks Stairway To Heaven is one of the classic songs of all time,” she says. “So he was kind of concerned about me doing it. He said: ‘I don’t know if you need to mess with that, because I think you’ll get a lot of criticism. People don’t want other people messing around with that song.’ But I did it anyhow. And he made a joke about it at first: ‘I think that was more like Stairwell To Hell than Stairway To Heaven!’” 

Parton pressed on undeterred. Besides, she already has history with the song. She previously covered it on 2002’s Grammy-nominated Halos & Horns, the final album of her experimental folk-grass trilogy.

“I’ve taken some rock things off and on over my career and countrified them,” she says. “I did the first Stairway To Heaven in the bluegrass gospel field. But I decided, for this album, that I wanted people to know that I could sing it in its original form. And I wanted, more than anything, for Carl to know that I could do that too. So I decided to be true to its form. And I have to add that Carl said: ‘Y’know, that’s pretty good.’ That’s really something coming from him!”

Ahead of the album’s release comes a book. Behind The Seams: My Life In Rhinestones is suitably lavish, bursting with photographs, that traces the evolution of Parton’s flamboyant fashion style over the decades. All the appropriate iconography is here – the gravity-defying wigs, sky-high heels, fitted pantsuits, leather dresses, cowgirl garb, butterfly gowns, a Playboy bunny suit, the famous Coat Of Many Colours – drawn from her private costume archive. 

Its arrival underlines a maxim that Parton continues to abide by: in order to play the part, you have to look the part. That applies to Rockstar too. The album boasts several sleeve variations, all united by black leather imagery. There’s Dolly astride a motorbike, a badass Dolly behind the leopard-print wheel of a car, Dolly striking a stack-heeled pose with a guitar, and Dolly in five-pointed eye patch. 

Behind The Seams also comes with anecdotes and nuggets of acquired wisdom. One section mentions Rockstar and how Parton was determined to pull out all the stops while making it. 

“Rock is not just a sound,” she writes, “it’s an attitude. Doing things your way, being a rebel. That’s why I think I’ve always had some rock’n’roll in my soul.” 

This idea clearly pervades the album. In practical terms, however, it meant negotiating a learning curve in the studio. “I do think rock is an attitude,” sheoffers. “In fact, I found that out for myself when I started singing those rock’n’roll songs. Standing there and remembering all the originals, I thought: ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to make sure that I’m true to this.’ 

"I’m a stylist, I sing a certain way. But I also knew that I had to buckle down to it, because it’s different from doing regular country songs, where you can just lay back and do it any way you please. There’s more aggression in rock’n’roll, which I found energising. And you’ve got to treat it with respect, because it is its own thing.” 

Parton certainly brings a unique energy to Rockstar. One that finds ultimate expression in its closing showstopper: a near 11-minute version of Free Bird, backed by Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves. It transpires that the southern-rock classic was a late addition to the album’s track-list, having initially been earmarked for another project.

“Kent Wells has been my guitar player, arranger/producer and bandleader for thirty-some years,” Parton explains. “When I was getting ready to do Rockstar, he was busy producing an album for Lynyrd Skynyrd. They knew Kent worked with me, so they asked if I would sing on a new version of Free Bird. And it turned out really good. 

"Later on I said to Kent: ‘What about putting Free Bird on my rock album too, if we get permission from them to do it?’ So that’s what we did. Then Ronnie Van Zant’s widow said that she’d let us use his voice on the track. She wouldn’t allow Lynyrd Skynyrd to do it, but she said: ‘I’ll do it for Dolly!’ So we got to use Ronnie on there. We had already recorded it, but his phrasing was so simple that they just dropped his vocal in."

“And then of course we had Gary [Rossington] and Artimus Pyle, all the people from the seventies band on there,” she continues. “So the way that whole thing turned around was just unique. Some of them hadn’t gotten together for a while, but one of their daughters said: ‘You gotta do it!’ So they actually mended some fences there, and I felt very blessed to be part of all that. Kent and I wanted to end the album with Free Bird. And of course Lynyrd Skynyrd have their album, too, though it’s not out yet.” 

Sadly, Parton’s epic rendition of Free Bird now serves as an epitaph for guitarist Rossington, who passed away this March

“We were so heartbroken when that happened, because we’d done that track with Gary not long before,” she says. “Right now, some of my crew are trying their best to see if we can actually get some footage of Gary and Ronnie Van Zant and try to incorporate that into a possible video. I’d love to make that work. Wouldn’t that be something?” 

Of the nine original songs on Rockstar, perhaps the closest to Dolly’s heart is I Dreamed About Elvis. In addition to the Jordanaires, Presley’s old backing singers, she’s also joined on it by singer and Elvis aficionado Ronnie McDowell. McDowell was the actual singing voice of Kurt Russell on the soundtrack of 1979’s acclaimed biopic Elvis

A sense of sorrow permeates I Dreamed About Elvis, rooted in Parton’s refusal to allow The King to record her grandstanding 1974 ballad I Will Always Love You, later a hit for Whitney Houston. 

At the time, Parton was only too ready to make it happen, but the recording session was nixed after Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, insisted that Elvis be given half the publishing rights in return. Parton was heartbroken at having to turn Presley down, later saying that she cried all night. 

“There’s a lot of regret that Elvis didn’t record my song,” she says. “I wrote I Dreamed About Elvis shortly after that episode with Colonel Tom. And I recorded the album version 21 years ago, using the group that actually travelled with Elvis. They were older guys, but still the Jordanaires. Ronnie McDowell used to travel with Elvis, and used to kind of fill in whenever his voice was bad. He sounds just like him, though he never tried to be an Elvis lookalike. So I looked up Ronnie when I wrote the song, to see if he’d sing it with me. I just felt kind of inspired to write I Dreamed About Elvis. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album. We didn’t change it much from back when we recorded it.”

Elvis Presley’s influence runs deep in Parton’s life. Contrary to popular myth, she cut her teeth on rock’n’roll, not country. Her first single, Puppy Love, was an up-tempo rocker, co-written with her uncle, Bill Owens. Released in 1959, Parton was just 13 when she recorded it for Goldband Records in Louisiana, a trip that involved a 30-hour bus ride to the studio. 

Mention of Puppy Love draws a laugh of recognition from its co-creator: “I love that song! And my Uncle Bill loved it too. He’s the one that helped me in my early days, taking me around to sing at different places. But he played guitar and was kind of a little rockabilly star of his own. He had a spit curl and black hair, so he looked like a rock’n’roller. And he recorded under the name ‘Little Billy Earl with the Spit Curl’ [much laughter]. Yeah, Puppy Love was rockabilly. We were influenced by Jerry Lee, Blue Suede Shoes and that whole era, especially Elvis. As a teenager, that’s all I wanted to listen to.” 

The lyrics of Rockstar’s title track depict a teenage dream of becoming famous. Its protagonist is holed up in his or her bedroom, records blaring, a guitar plugged into an amp. ‘I stand before my mirror, play and sing and dream/Some day I’ll be standing in the lights, selling shows out every night’, Dolly sings. Is she drawing from direct experience? 

“I’ve always done that,” Parton affirms. “I’ve done that since I was a kid, standing in front of the mirror, singing and acting and doing whatever I imagined I’d feel when I became a star. I’ve practised my autograph all my life. I think most kids do that, if you’ve got a desire to be a star. You stand before the mirror, you try to comb your hair like Elvis did and try to make some moves of your own, or else imitate somebody you’ve seen. Everybody’s done it.” 

On a deeper level, the song is also about staying true to your vision, to follow your ambition no matter how far-fetched it might seem. This is where Dolly Parton really comes into her own. The journey from what she calls “dirt poor” Little Pigeon River to Nashville glory and global megastardom often sounds like the stuff of country cliché, but Parton has actually lived it. Talent is one thing, drive, determination and fortitude are another.

“I was always very focused,” she reasons. “I’ve never strayed from my dream, like a lot of people have. And I do believe that’s one of the reasons I’ve made it. I never wanted to do anything else. I might’ve been a beautician had I not made it, because I still wanted the makeup and the hair and everything – I even played that role in [1989 film] Steel Magnolias. But making it in music was in my soul, my gut, my mind, my brain. If I had been a beautician or a waitress or whatever, I’d still have saved my money and I’d have been going into the studio doing demos and making records, even if it meant selling them from the back of my car. I’m one of those kind of artists, I would’ve had to do music somehow.”

Dolly Parton in 1976

(Image credit: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images)

That single-mindedness took her to Nashville the day after she finished high school in 1964. Parton’s first taste of success came as a songwriter for others, although she had to stick it out for another three years until her first solo country hit: Curly Putnam’s Dumb Blonde, a misnomer if ever there was one. Within a decade she was country’s all-conquering queen. Her reputation was forged alongside Porter Wagoner (both on TV and in the studio), but it was the early-70s run of self-written classics – Joshua, Coat Of Many Colours, My Tennessee Mountain Home, I Will Always Love You and, of course, the unstoppable Jolene – that turned her platinum. 

From thereon in, nothing seemed beyond her: Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals, the Dollywood theme park, a multi-faceted entertainment company, TV and film production. 

“You’ve got to be focused, you can’t drift around too much,” she explains. “A lot of people will get something going and then they’ll fall in love or have a baby or do whatever. Anything can throw you off track and you can lose momentum. But I’ve never been pulled away. I was like a horse with blinders, I never looked back.” 

Unlike many of her country peers and forebears, superstardom doesn’t appear to have damaged Parton. Her acute business instincts and iron will are clear to all – 

“Some people have called me an ‘iron butterfly’,” she writes in Behind The Seams. “I’m not offended by that, because I am a strong person” – but she’s also tender-hearted. Crucially too, she’s never lost sight of her roots, retaining a common touch and sense of humility that continue to endear her to millions. 

So how has she managed it? How has she held on to her sanity in the face of intense public scrutiny for all these years? 

“Who said I’m sane?” she chuckles. “Actually, I stay anchored because I don’t try to follow other people around. I don’t try to follow trends, I don’t try to follow a fashion. I don’t try to make my music be something that it’s not. I just try to be true to my own gut feeling and what I think I can do. Like I’ve always said, I know what I know, and what I know I’m good at. But I’m also smart enough to know what I don’t know, and I try not to meddle in that, unless I really think I can pull that off, like I did for this rock album. I always say that I live on creative and spiritual energy, and that’s a good combination to keep you on the ground.”

Dolly Parton headshot, 2023

(Image credit: Butterfly Records)

Dolly Parton refuses to let the grass grow under her feet. She’s thinking about recording a gospel album, there’s a Broadway musical in the works, plus an acting role in the film adaptation of Run, Rose, Run, based on her best-selling 2022 novel, co-written with author James Patterson. Parton has already released an accompanying album, while the movie version has been produced in tandem with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine company. 

The basic premise of Run, Rose, Run feels very autobiographical: a young woman arrives in Nashville to pursue her dream of becoming a country star. Parton should have been filming already, but production has been caught up in the recent Hollywood strikes. 

“We were planning to start it in October, but then the strike happened,” she explains. “So it looks like now it will be pushed into next year. I’m hoping some day soon we’ll get a chance to do it, because I love working with Reese.” 

The Broadway musical, meanwhile, tells the story of Parton’s whole life. 

“We’re hoping we might have that ready for the spring of 2025,” she says. “So I’m working on that in all my spare time. I’ve written all the music, and I’ve co-written the story too.” 

It’s easy to assume that allthese different ventures occupy their own particular space and time. But there’s very little compartmentalisation in Parton’s creative life. Rather, each project feeds into the others, crossing arcs and through-lines that cut deep into her body of work. The same applies to her recorded output.

Rockstar is a prime example. Contrary to outward appearances, the album doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The poignant My Blue Tears, for example, dates back to 1971’s Coat Of Many Colours. Parton has revisited the song several times since, recording it with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt at one point, and later giving it a bluegrass makeover for 2001’s sublime Little Sparrow. For Rockstar, she duets with Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon. 

“I’ve always loved My Blue Tears,” she says. “Carl was never the kind of person that would sit and listen to my music much. But when I first wrote it, I was singing that song in my music room and he stepped to the door and said: ‘I really like that. That’s a real good one.’ The first person that ever recorded it was Goldie Hawn, when she did a country album [1972’s Goldie]. 

"So it’s been done many times. I don’t know what it is, but I just kept not giving up on that song. It’s just an emotional country song. It reminds me of the old Elizabethan songs. I guess that’s just embedded in my soul, that old-world flavour. For the rock album, I thought: ‘Let’s give it a bigger sound with the orchestra and everything, just to show what you can do with a simple little song.’ It was for Carl more than anything.”

Rockstar also sees Parton return to prior sources. Having recorded a cover of REO Speedwagon’s Time For Me To Fly for 1989’s White Limozeen, she’s now covered another power ballad, Keep On Loving You. REO lead singer Kevin Cronin, composer of both tunes, is aboard too. 

“Kevin was one of those people that responded after I did the callout at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I told him: ‘I would absolutely love to have you on it.’ I think we did a good job on Keep On Loving You. I loved recording Time For Me To Fly all those years ago too. That was another one of my husband’s favourites that I did in a bluegrass fashion. He didn’t like that one either!” 

Elsewhere, Richie Sambora’s presence on the title track connects directly to Bon Jovi’s huge-selling 80s rocker Lay Your Hands On Me. Parton covered the song as a spirited country-gospel number for her album Blue Smoke in 2014, the same year that co-writer Sambora appeared alongside her to perform at Glastonbury. 

Nine years on, Parton’s memories of that occasion are no less vivid. She played the Pyramid Stage late on Sunday afternoon, sandwiched between sets by Ed Sheeran and The 1975. In a white, rhinestone-studded suit, Parton was phenomenal, drawing a record-breaking crowd of 180,000 and serving up the hits. Mass singalongs ensued, from Jolene and Here You Come Again to Islands In The Stream and 9 To 5. Even the security staff had choreographed their own moves. 

“I felt a little nervous about doing Glastonbury,” she admits, “because I knew it was mostly a rock audience. They were having their fun, just wanting to get into the music, dancing and feeling it. And I was thinking: ‘So much of my music is slow and storytelling. I’m not sure about this.’ I thought that when I got out there they might be whooping and hollering over the stories I was telling. But when I walked out I just got this tremendous acceptance. And when I would tell my stories they were as quiet as they could be and they seemed to really be into it. 

"It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. And then with Richie coming out and playing with me on Lay Your Hands On Me, y’know, that killed it. We had a fine time.” With three million-plus watching on TV, Parton’s spot was the most viewed of the entire festival.

Before she took to the stage at Glastonbury, Parton received a special presentation marking career album sales of more than 100 million. In the States she’s the only artist to have made the country charts in each of the past seven decades; no other female performer has scored more chart-topping singles in Billboard’s country listings; and she has more Top 10 country albums than anyone in history. 

But while she will forever be associated with country music, it’s little surprise that Parton has also been embraced by the rock crowd and beyond. Hers is crossover music. Marianne Faithfull, Sisters Of Mercy, Sinéad O’Connor, Percy Sledge, Martha Wainwright, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, Angel Olsen and members of The Mekons have all recorded her songs. 

Then there’s The White Stripes. In 2000, Jack and Meg White covered Jolene as the B-side to Hello Operator. This was no token throwaway. The song became a regular live favourite of theirs, to the point where a version from 2004’s Under Blackpool Lights DVD was later issued as a single. Another rendition was on their 2010 live album. 

Parton seems genuinely thrilled when I bring up the subject. 

“I think it’s great! I love The White Stripes, and I was so honoured that they did their version of it. And the fact that they played it on stage for a while. I’m always tickled to death when anybody goes into my songs. They don’t always have to sound like mine, though The White Stripes didn’t change it all that much. I mean, Jolene is Jolene. You can never change a woman like that!” 

At this stage, a follow-up to Rockstar appears unlikely. The sheer weight of 30 songs, she says, means that she doesn’t feelthe need to do another rock album any time soon. 

“That’s not to say I’ll never sing another rock song or never write one,” Parton adds. “Actually, I think I will write more stuff like that, because I’ve got that in my veins now. I think it really added a new dimension to my writing.” 

The whole experience only serves to shore up the idea that Dolly Parton, like fellow Rock And Roll Hall Of Famers Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, transcends country music completely. She belongs in a category of one, a bona fide, honest-to-goodness living icon. 

“I think I do [transcend country], and I think I have done that, even through the years with the movies and all,” she muses before it’s time to sign off. “Hank did that because of his writing and his honesty, I guess. Those songs are so simple, but they’re so damn good. They’re so deep. The same with Johnny Cash. I always think of him as the John Wayne of country music. He just was a personality, a fixture in our business. People loved him, he’s a legend. I don’t know that I’m a legend, but if I’m not now then maybe I will be!” 

Another eruption of laughter. 

“Hopefully I’ll be around a while yet.”

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.