HITS Daily Double


When Dolly Parton (who graces the cover of HITS' 2023 Nashville Special) asked to be withdrawn from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame consideration, a roar went ’round the world. Believing people who’d devoted their lives to rock music deserved the slot, she felt awkward. Told she couldn’t withdraw, she did what she’s always done: earned it.

Rockstar (due 11/17 via Butterfly/Big Machine) makes good on her promise. The amusement park-owning, Academy Award-nominated, 12-time Grammy winner, founder of the Imagination Library (which distributed 200 million free books to kids) and Songwriters Hall of Fame member created a 30-song project with a handful of originals that hold their own against “Let It Be” with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton and Mick Fleetwood, “Heartbreaker” with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” with P!nk and Brandi Carlile, and her second #1 Rock track, “Bygones” with Rob Halford, Nikki Sixx and John 5.

A single-moniker sex symbol like Madonna and Cher, Parton’s embodied country since arriving in Nashville the day of her high school graduation. “Jolene,” “To Daddy” and Whitney Houston’s Parton-penned “I Will Always Love You” might move over—Dolly’s high impact, guitar-forward rock record’s coming, and she’s excited.

You are an unbelievable rock ’n’ roll singer.

Well, I like to sing. People just know me as my own voice. I’m a stylist and they haven’t heard me sing other songs. When I get to sing songs that we all know, I was busting my butt trying to be good! Because I wanted to keep up with all those great people we had on the record. But thank you for the compliment.

You can hear the joy! Was it fun?

It was fun. I’d talked about doing a rock album because of my husband. I’d always said he is a rock ’n’ roll freak; I mean, he loves rock ’n’ roll. That’s his music. All the years we’ve been married, I hear it all the time blasting throughout the house, in the car or the truck or wherever we are. He just always listens to rock.

I love it, too. I know so many of the songs and the artists, but I’m just a country singer. I’ve covered a few rock things in my career, but to really commit to doing the album? I probably wouldn’t have done it had it not been for that debacle or whatever you want to call it with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

I didn’t mean for it to be a controversy of any kind. I didn’t think I’d earned it. I just thought for rock people who had spent their lives doing that, I didn’t feel it was right to take anything away from them. But then they gave it to me anyway.

I’m also not one to miss timing. If I’m ever going to do a rock album, now’s the time. And when I decided to do it, I wanted to sing my heart out, let people know that I can sing, not just my stuff or country stuff, but that I’m a singer. I take it real serious. So I wanted to sing my heart out for everybody, and I did.

Was there anybody you were, like, “uh oh” when you got in the studio with them?

I loved all the people. Some asked to be on it, and I would have probably asked them anyway. Some I asked. They all seemed to jump at the chance. I was very flattered. I’m always a person who respects everybody and their voices and their differences, so I was thrilled and felt privileged to get to sing with all these great rock artists. My God, we have some of the greatest!

I’m never intimidated by anybody; I just feel proud to be in their presence. And I feel like I can hold my own with anybody, so I never looked at it like that. I just thought, Boy, what a joy, what a thrill, what a chance of a lifetime this is!

These people came hard, right? They were thinking, I gotta keep up with that little thing!

I think they wanted to make me proud, too. I felt good about that.

What was the most fun session?

The most fun session was Stevie Nicks.

The song we did of hers ["What Has Rock 'n' Roll Ever Done for You"] was really a performance piece, like something we would do onstage or on a television show. It’s a song she wrote back in the ’70s, I think, and had never put it on a record but had always wanted to.

When we got in the studio, it was just fun, because we kinda ad-libbed at the front and on the end just having fun. We take our music seriously, but that one we could have fun with.

I don’t think we had to do everything absolutely perfect. I like those kinda loose songs, because I’ve always been a performer and entertainer, and there’s a lot to be said when you can hear the fun.

I had a great, fun day with Debbie Harry [recording Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”]. She came down, and we got to know each other quite a bit. She is just the sweetest people, so good.

John Fogerty, we did ["Long as I Can See the Light"] live with the band, live like we used to do sessions in the old days. Rather than just singing with a track or being somewhere else singing our parts. We were both singing at the same time in the studio with a live band. We were both saying, “God! People don’t do this anymore! Such a thrill to just get in here!”

How’d you find everyone?

A lot of these guests were on the show from the Hall of Fame. I asked them if they would sing, and different ones said, “If you do a rock album, I’d love to do it.”

Danny [Nozell, Parton’s manager] and his crew, our marketing team, have just done an incredible job reaching out to coordinate all this, helping get all the stars together and in the studio, making certain all the things went well.

Does your husband, Carl, have a favorite?

I’ve always loved Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” I couldn’t get Bob because of our scheduling, but I asked if it was OK if I got Chris Stapleton. That one’s a real favorite because I love Chris and I love Bob Seger and I love that song.

And the song that I always loved was something I wrote when I was just a girl. I was real young when I wrote “My Blue Tears,” and that was with Simon LeBon from Duran Duran. My husband always liked that song. When he’d hear me just humming at it, he’d say, “That’s a really pretty song!” Goldie Hawn recorded it back when she was doing Laugh-In. Linda [Ronstadt] and Emmy[lou Harris] recorded it separate and together. Then we did it as a Trio song. I’ve recorded versions of it, too. I felt like this was the ultimate arrangement, and I loved Simon. So that’s a favorite.

And Miley!

Singing with Miley and doing “Wrecking Ball” was a real highlight of my life.

That’s a circle closing, because you’re her Godmother.

Miley and I are very close. We worked on [Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party] and did a version as a duet. That gave me the idea. I thought, Well, I’ve got to sing that! I love that song, and we can mix; I can do some of the melody and she can do harmonies.” I got the big idea of kind of incorporating “I Will Always Love You” as the backdrops in the vocals, at the end do that little thing because she loved it. We worked it up on the phone. She did it in her studio, and I did my part here, but I’d put down little things I wanted her to do, and she’d duplicate it, then say, “Well, why don’t you do this?” She’d put down a vocal track of something she thought would be cool for us to do. We kinda worked it out like that.

Is writing a rock ’n’ roll song different?

Music is music, and I’ve done enough as a writer. I depended a lot on [Rockstar] producer Kent Wells, who did a fantastic job on this album. I’ve always believed he could and should do a great rock album because he’s great at everything.

Everybody was, like, “Oh, you gotta hire the biggest and the best names in the rock ’n’ roll business.” I thought, No, I don’t! I’ve got just exactly who I want, and I know I can work great with him―and I have great ideas of my own.” Kent was very, very helpful because he knows that rock world.

We wrote a lot of stuff together. He was very beneficial at making sure the melodies were right, the chord changes were in keeping with that. I can write songs all day long; I can write words in my sleep and often do. I really enjoyed having that challenge to rise to the occasion. I didn’t want people saying, “Did you hear Dolly’s new album?” “Yeah, it was okay…” Or they expected it to be just a jazzed-up rock version of country. But no, sir, that’s not what I wanted. I wanted this to be a ball buster. I wanted this to be a really, really, really serious rock ’n’ roll album!

“Bygones”―congratulations on your second #1 rock hit―is so ferocious! Did you or Carl listen to really hammering metal? You have all that Judas Priest, AC/DC stuff down cold.

I absolutely love that song! And Carl, he was a Led-head, not just Led Zeppelin, his favorite group, but all that heavy metal. You know, real pedal-to-the-metal kind of rock. Carl loved this album. I played it for him after I got it mixed. He said, “Well, damn, that’s really good!” That’s the first time he’s ever really complimented me in my whole life about that. He’ll say, “Well, that’s good.” But he said, “Damn! That’s really good!”―like he was surprised, too!

Nobody phoned it in. “Oh, it’s Dolly. We’re gonna take it easy on her.”

I didn’t want them to say, “Catch them, Dolly” or “Sing the song and drag Dolly.” I wanted to be as good as or better than anybody who was on there. I was giving it my best, and nobody can be better than some of those people. I didn’t want to embarrass anybody, so I was pedaling as fast as I could.

You reinvented some of these songs.

I added my own touch to some, yeah.

Slightly different interpretations that made them more modern.

The main thing was I wanted to be me; I wanted to, as they say, “Dolly-ize” them a little. On “Night Moves,” to keep it a girl song, the first part I changed a bit of the wording. Although it’s the same words, I slightly changed a little and added a few things in the middle. Where we say, “Dance the jitterbug on the courthouse yard, skinny-dipping in the cement pond,” I added little nice melodic things, but that’s just me; I can’t leave nothing alone. I have to make it my own somehow.

You make “Purple Rain” full-on gospel.

I’ve always loved that song! I decided early on that was going to be my song; I wasn’t going to ask for special guests. I felt like I was in there with Prince. I felt like he was my soul, my spiritual partner on that one. I was just visualizing him the whole time I was singing as if I was singing it to him or with him or for him.

With that one I got really carried away in the spirit. To me, it has a spiritual connotation, not that I’m sure what the purple rain is. Just like being rained on in the spirit, or like some sort of realization to rise above. I just want to be laughing in the purple rain, like in that good stuff that’s out there that could fall on you if you let it.

At the other end of the spectrum, “World on Fire” could be one of the great rock songs of the next 20, 30 years.

Lots of people said I was trying to be political; I was just trying to be emotional. I even got woke up outta bed to write that song. I felt I had to say that because I worry a lot about the world and about people, about the state that we’ve got ourselves in and why we’re not trying harder to do something. I felt like I could say something to try to make it easier.

How’d that happen?

I knew I’d never do another rock album. I might sing some songs with other rock artists, I might have a rocking kind of thing on an album here and there, but I knew I’d never do another rock album. We’d finished; we’d already done 30 songs, and Kent said, “We can’t do anymore songs.” So I thought when I wrote “World on Fire,” we were finished. We gotta start putting vocals in, overdubs. We gotta stop! We’re not going to do anymore.

So that very night… I’m a very early riser. I woke up straight outta bed. It was like I was almost being called to write this song. I didn’t hear a voice or anything, other than in my soul. I just came to the kitchen and started writing a song. I felt really led to it. I felt really in the moment, in the spirit of it.

I called Kent as soon as it got daylight and said, “We have to call another session because I wrote a song I think we have to do.” He said, “Really?!” I said, “Really! I’m going to come down and sing it to you. You tell me what you think.” I went down, played it, and he said, “Yep, you’re right. We gotta call another session.”

You never sound preachy; you sound like a journalist reporting. But when you get to the end and it climaxes, you go to this place where you’re sowing love, then the choir blasts this wash of love.

Well, it is love! That’s what I was trying to say. “Can’t we rise above? Can’t we show some love? Can’t we just step up and make a change?” It’s, like, “Can’t we?” I don’t know why we can’t!

I just hate it that people have hardened their hearts so much that even wanting to make a change… They’re so set in their ways, so set in their politics, so set in their party, so set in their… you know, so just go set in your sorrow!

It’s like the world’s on fire, but we still have time to turn it all around. I wasn’t talking about necessarily climate change any more than I was talking about hate and famine and lack of acceptance, lack of love. That song just was everything that I am, everything that I feel, everything that I see. Because I try to keep my heart and eyes open―and my mouth when I need to, when I need to say something!

Everybody thought I was getting political when I said that line “Don’t get me started on politics, how do we live in a world like this. Greedy politicians present and past, wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the ass.” I got kinda scorned a little―they wanted me to change that for the single overseas. I thought, Really!? Anyhow, I changed it to “leaders of the world, present and past, you better make a change and you better do it fast.”

So I was talking about leaders all over the world, not just Trump and Biden, or any of ours. I was talking about greedy politicians all over the world not caring about the people or problems of the world. I wasn’t trying to wax political; I was just trying to make my statement, but nobody had ever heard me speak in that way.

Anyhow, I stand by anything I write, anything I say, and that’s that.

Coming from you, it’s a much different statement than from an activist.

Because I’m not. I’m about trying to make any change I can. I’m all for everybody. I’m all-accepting. I have some of everybody in my own family and my own circle of friends; in my own circle I’ve got alcoholics, drug addicts… I’ve got gays, lesbians, transgender people, drag queens… I’ve got everybody in my circle of life. I know them all as people. I don’t judge. I know how serious they are about what they’re doing. I just live and let live. The people who live in glass houses are throwing the biggest rocks. How stupid is that?

Coming from you, people hear it. I know people who got vaccinated because of what you did with Moderna.

I just do what my heart leads me to do. Donating money for whatever the causes are, I try to put my money where my heart is. I can’t go wrong with that, with what I expect of myself and what I believe God expects of me. Now, what other people expect of me, I don’t know. Everybody wants to be loved and appreciated. But it’s more important that I feel good about me―that I think I might be doing something that I hope might be pleasing to God―than it is about somebody’s criticism of me. I just do what I do that feels right at the time.

But back to the album. I really felt like I needed for that song… to put it down, even though it was not planned at all. That’s how I knew it must be meant to be.

Years from now people will hear it, long after I’m gone, and they’ll kind of mark time, too.

I think times have always been like that. Do you remember my song “In the Meantime” [from 2011’s Better Day] that I wrote so long ago? It’s not so different; just get on with the show!

In the meantime, show some love and kindness. Get off the doomsday attitude and your high horse!

That’s why I also chose to do “What’s Up,” the Linda Perry and 4 Non Blondes song. I love that it’s a way of making a statement in a musical way without beating people over the head. I like those songs in the album.

When you put that with “Purple Rain,” it lifts people up, wakes them up, and makes ’em happy.

That’s what I always want to do. I really love thinking that if I can lift people up or lift their burdens in any way on any day, that makes me feel that I’ve done my job that day. Because I feel like it is my job to write and sing about the people. I want to be their voice. Like any serious singer, writer, entertainer, you want to be there for the people; you want to be what they need.

I’m hoping people can feel my joy, my love, my sincerity, my singing my heart out on these songs. They were fun and all that, but I wanted to feel that if somebody’s listening that wouldn’t even know who I was, got their hands on these songs, they’d say, “Man, I’m really enjoying that! Wow, that person sounds like they really enjoy what they’re doing!”

When you, Emmylou and Sheryl Crow do “You’re No Good,” it’s not a bummer, not even really putting the guy down. You’re just kinda “Yep, fuck this!”

That song! I love Linda and Emmy. I wanted to pay tribute to our Trio. Sheryl is just the sweetest girl in the world. I knew Linda wasn’t able to sing anymore, but I wanted something for her because she was―for me―the ultimate rock girl singer back in the day. She had some of the greatest records. [Ronstadt had a #1 hit with Texan Clint Ballard Jr.’s “You’re No Good” in 1975.] I’ve always loved that song. I wanted Emmy on something, even though she’s not considered rock. She’s like Chris Stapleton―everybody loves them no matter what field of music they’re doing. I thought Sheryl would be great; we’d have a great Trio sound.

We got to work together. We had fun putting out our harmonies, figuring out who was going to sing what where. I’ll always remember that. We did our vocals and everything over at Sheryl’s studio. She has a recording studio on a farm with her horses. We had a great day singing our harmony and our vocals. We all thought of Linda and said, “Oh, I hope Linda’s going to be proud of this.”

You could feel the love, and the homage, but you updated it. When Emmy does that talking part!

In all the songs I added little things; I added that little talking part. Actually, Emmylou sang the first part; Sheryl sang the last. Emmy did “I broke a heart honest and true,” then Sheryl says, “I broke a heart over someone like you.” They split those lines but sound just alike; you can’t tell which one’s which. We did that with our harmonies, too; you can’t tell which is which once we get going. And we do flip them around: “You sing high on this, I’ll sing low.”

“Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” the biggest songs in rock music.

Those are the two classic songs of rock ’n’ roll. Most everybody said, “Don’t touch them.”

I’d done a country/bluegrass “Stairway to Heaven” years ago, but I wanted to do it again, sing it the real way, true to the way it was done. Then “Free Bird,” Kent actually produced that for Lynyrd Skynyrd; they’re coming out with a Lynyrd Skynyrd album, and he’d worked with the guys and [drummer] Artemis [Pyle]... That song really has a history to it. We lost a couple of the guys right after I recorded it.

Then Ronnie Van Zant's widow allowed us to use his voice on our record. That’s not going to be on the Lynyrd Skynyrd record, only the version we did. She allowed that, and I was so happy we got to use his real voice. They just dropped it in the way they manipulate those things now. It made it so special. I get chills every time I hear it. I’d already sung my version, and I didn’t know his voice enough, but then our phrasing turned out to be almost just exact when we were singing on the song!

That’s such a classic. And it just goes on forever; lord, it’s a 10-minute song! At least five or six minutes is guitar. I remember getting so lost in the music, just singing wherever I felt it. I felt really honored to get to sing “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and I hope people will appreciate my version of them.

With “Stairway,” Lizzo on the flute was so great. That fairy dust really captured Zeppelin’s feminine energy.

She did a beautiful job. And that Sasha Flute, she calls it; she named her flute “Sasha.” When I asked her to be on here, she was so proud to do it. I just thought that was great, to have her playing flute. And man, it’s really featured! She’s just so talented.

HITS cover photo: Vijat Mohindra