Speaking in the brand new issue of Classic Rock magazine, the country icon details how she ended up covering the song for her new rock album, Rockstar, which also features appearances from Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Peter Frampton and more.
Parton’s 11-minute cover, which closes the album, came about via her bandleader and producer Kent Wells, though it had initially been earmarked for another project entirely.
“Kent Wells has been my guitar player, arranger/producer and bandleader for thirty-some years,” Parton tells Classic Rock’s Rob Hughes. “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.
The song also features members of Skynyrd themselves, including original guitarist Gary Rossington and former drummer Artimus Pyle.
“Some of them hadn’t gotten together for a while, but one of their daughters said: ‘You gotta do it!’” says Parton. “So they actually mended some fences there, and I felt very blessed to be part of all that.”
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?”
Read the full interview with Dolly Parton, plus collaborators Rob Halford, Peter Frampton and Richie Sambora, in the brand new issue of Classic Rock. Order it online now and have it delivered straight to your door.