The fact that Dolly Parton is and has always been a national treasure is already an essential American reality.
Parton, a septuagenarian singer-songwriter, actress, theme park owner, and entrepreneur, was showered with accolades last year when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, something unexpected happened: she politely declined the invitation, stating that she did not consider herself a rock ‘n’ roll luminary.
From there, Parton saw an opportunity to establish herself as a rock star in her own right. Her husband’s suggestion that she record a rock album inspired her to take on the task, and last Friday saw the release of her aptly named forty-ninth (!!) solo studio album, “Rockstar.”
With thirty tracks and three additional songs on the limited edition CD, the album clocks in at over 140 minutes, making it an event. It reminds me of a time not too far in the past when albums were coherent works of art (do you recall the idea of a “concept album”?).
The original title track of “Rockstar,” which features Richie Sambora and has spoken words that hint at the concept that Parton intended to record a rock album since she was young, gets the album off to a very aggressive start.
“World on Fire,” another original song, is the second tune. It faithfully attempts to stir up controversy by making observations on the current status of the world, just as a rock star would.
The album then heavily leans into covers, and because Dolly Parton is who she is, it has the unique quality of drawing an absurd amount of collaborators, many of whom return to perform their most well-known song—something that most of them probably wouldn’t rehearse if it weren’t for the opportunity to rehearse with Dolly herself.
The outcomes are inconsistent. Ann Wilson of Heart’s “Magic Man (Carl Version)” sounds amazing, while John Fogerty’s languid “Long As I Can See the Light” seems a little pointless. Other blunders include collaborating with Kid Rock on an original song and updating Queen’s “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You” in a similarly pointless manner.
However, some of the “Rockstar’s” most extravagant accessories, such as Parton’s sublime performance of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which seems respectfully understated yet highlights her still powerful voice, manage to make it all forgivable. I realized that I hadn’t heard a rendition of “Purple Rain” in a long time—possibly never—because after Prince left us, who would dare try covering the song? Dolly would have, and she made the right decision.
Parton’s duet with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, a stunning rendition of the latter’s 2013 smash song “Wrecking Ball” that we didn’t know we needed, is another standout moment.
It would be an understatement to say that Dolly lets her hair down on “Rockstar.” There are some hilarious moments, such as the original team-ups with Stevie Nicks, Melissa Etheridge, and Ronnie McDowell (the latter for a lively tribute to Elvis Presley), where their banter is just as entertaining as the singing.
Pink and Brandi Carlile add some fresh energy to her cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and songs like “Baby I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton and “Keep on Loving You” by Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon instantly ring true, making the album feel almost like sterling karaoke. Why should this be viewed negatively? (Yes, Frampton and Cronin return for their individual songs with Parton.)
Some song choices, such as Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” revive the debate over what exactly constitutes a rock ‘n’ roll song, but Parton’s dedication makes the experiment successful.
Then there’s Lizzo’s rendition of “Stairway to Heaven,” which lasts over eight minutes and features her flute, Sasha Flute. Even with the noticeable absence of Led Zeppelin’s surviving members, there are a number of components coming together to create something extraordinary.
Overall, it’s obvious that Parton put a lot of love into this project, as evidenced on songs like her cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” with Linda Perry and “Heartbreaker” with Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo. While listening to these covers can make you snicker at first—like, really? She picked that one?— Even with an astounding 21 cover songs on the album, Parton’s signature ever-earnest personality shines through in a manner that is uniquely hers.