Bringing focus to Dolly Parton’s Rockstar

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Dolly Parton Rockstar

Welcome back to Remake/Remodel, the column where one of Treble’s editors or contributors takes a classic—if imperfect, to our ears—album, and proposes an alternate tracklist in an effort to provide a different, albeit highly enjoyable listening experience. It might be too new to call it “classic,” but 2023’s Rockstar was massive in terms of goal and protagonist. This was meant to be the first true rock album from country legend Dolly Parton, springing from her 2022 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Parton initially refused enshrinement in the Hall, claiming she wasn’t a rock musician. She eventually bowed to loving public pressure, with one caveat: making good on a self-imposed rock-music IOU for the fans and industry celebrating her. Parton showed up at the RRHOF ceremony with a new song, the deferential “Rockin’ It,” then announced and teased a full-on rock album throughout 2023.

Trading on a cavalcade of guest stars as well as decades of her own performance flair and well-earned goodwill, Rockstar’s release just prior to Thanksgiving was one of her biggest debuts ever—topping Billboard’s rock and country charts, premiering at #3 on their top 200, and dominating iTunes and Amazon rankings as well. Yet the shine seemed to come off the album as quickly as loose sequins. Critics were polite but cool on it overall, and after a brief publicity blitz (including an awesome NFL halftime show) even Parton herself has quietly retreated back to Dollywood. So here we are, wondering what could have been and what can be done regarding this confounding flash in the pan.

The first issue is the collective in-studio decision-making that coats Rockstar in the glossiest of pop-country sheens. It’s Parton’s modern oeuvre, gotta respect the hustle. But some of these performances are so straightforward, and the interactions and exclamations so stilted, as to flirt with parody. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the gritty later chapters from country music’s old guard over the past three decades, but these seem like the kind of productions that first sent Johnny Cash running into the arms of Rick Rubin. The second issue: boy howdy, are there way too many of them. The proper release holds 30 tracks running almost two-and-a-half hours, with six more songs spread out across special editions. Dolly’s commitment to show off her range and her A-list connections results in an exhausting amount of content, 50 percent more songs than even her 2022 hits anthology Diamonds & Rhinestones.

So how can we solve such problems in our musical multiverse? We need to find the sweet spot between the strongest Parton performances and guest stars who don’t expand to fill available studio space. The covers have to be more than merely competent, rising above rote and on-the-nose, while the originals have to feel honest. Let’s also place this experiment in a vacuum, imagining a world where she didn’t release any singles through 2023 so we’re not automatically committed to them. Our answers ultimately incorporate not just addition by subtraction, but multiplication by division. 

Star: The Covers Album

We can picture an LP focusing on Parton’s covers from the rock canon, which may not have been the original selling point of Rockstar but definitely became it. She recorded 23 songs by other people, and there are 11 that stand above the rest. On our proposed Star album we try to avoid the most obvious of guests and song choices—neither guarantee great performances anyway.

Let’s be honest, the cachet of wrangling Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr doesn’t improve “Let it Be” beyond The Beatles’ original. Coverage of epics like the Lizzo-fluted “Stairway to Heaven” seems to be more about the guests’ performances than Dolly’s, and there are some songs here like “What’s Up?” and “Free Bird” perched between universal acclaim and disdain whose cases Parton doesn’t really help.

Star would alternate between upbeat peaks and softer, somber valleys, with purposeful choices beginning and ending the musical journey. We start off with one of her limited-edition covers, a rather powerful version of Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” (not on streaming, but included above) inviting us on the trip, and wrap with an Elton John duet on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” where the orchestration is turned up to 11. 

Dolly Parton’s Star playlist:

Two Tickets to Paradise
Long as I Can See the Light (with John Fogerty)
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (with Pink and Brandi Carlile)
Wrecking Ball (with Miley Cyrus)
You’re No Good (with Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow)
Purple Rain
Heartbreaker (with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo)
Keep On Loving You (with Kevin Cronin)
Night Moves (with Chris Stapleton)
Baby, I Love Your Way (with Peter Frampton)
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me (with Elton John)

We have a string of girl-power statements starting with Pink and Brandi Carlile helping Parton reposition The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” followed by her messaging across generations on “You’re No Good” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Sticking to more bluesy numbers and midtempo balladry helps this tracklist, especially when Dolly redoes “Purple Rain” with a lot of gospel touches. It’s the most startling moment here where she picked a song that on paper looked like a mistake and yet turned out not to be—I don’t think anything will surpass Prince’s original, but it’s definitely her own, and quite good.

Rock: The Originals Album

Parton could have also theoretically released a second LP with the best of a burst of original songwriting and performance meant to be “rock,” or at least her vision of it. From 13 Rockstar songs we select eight that feel the least like she was compelled to do this work at gunpoint. We’ll leave “Rockstar” as the opener even as we forgive the scene-setting skits woven throughout it, and fill the rest of the album with production, arrangement, and lyrics that suggest later albums from catalogs like Aerosmith and Tom Petty. The former figures prominently in “I Want You Back,” as vocalist Steven Tyler supports Parton on a loping blues number with Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes.

“Either Or” is sullied by Kid Rock’s yelping, and while dropping “Jolene” off the playlist might seem like heresy, dropping Måneskin as her co-conspirators and de facto lead singers sure doesn’t. There are enough other cuts here where Parton acquits herself well across different genres. The big surprises are the metal of “Bygones” with Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and a revision of her own 1971 song “My Blue Tears” smoothly assisted by Simon le Bon of Duran Duran, closing this proposed album in sad Pogues/Kristy MacColl fashion. And while the rockabilly “I Dreamed About Elvis” is half occupied by “I Will Always Love You,” her songs with Michael McDonald and especially Stevie Nicks are earnest and interesting.

Dolly Parton’s Rock playlist:

Rockstar (with Richie Sambora)
Bittersweet (with Michael McDonald)
Bygones (with Rob Halford, Nikki Sixx, and John 5)
I Want You Back (with Steven Tyler and Warren Haynes)
Tried to Rock and Roll Me (with Melissa Etheridge)
World on Fire
What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You? (with Stevie Nicks)
My Blue Tears (with Simon le Bon)

Not for nothing, but the covers proposed for Star make for a solid playlist while these Rock originals feel more challenging and intriguing. It’s the same overall critique I have with the Rockstar project—a lot of cute curiosities broken up by hints of something… not more genuine, because I believe she came to all of this work honestly, and not just better, but deeper. Dolly Parton tried here to cram an entirely new level of legitimacy onto her resumé, playing a desperate but quite unnecessary game of catch-up. She’s earned the right to not need to lift another finger for the music industry, and I expect her public appeal will stay broad to the end. But if she is really interested in pursuing the sounds of rock and Rockstar any further, so late in her career and life, I hope she continues to trend toward the new, the different, the underexposed and unheralded.

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