Dolly Parton on Making ‘Rockstar’: ‘If I Screw This Up, I’ve Screwed Up Big Time’

“We had the car radio on,” Dolly Parton recalls of the day she met Carl Dean, her husband of 57 years. “I don’t remember what it was playing, but it was loud and it was rock’n’roll.”

His love of the genre is, in many ways, what led Parton to record a rock album of her own: Rockstar. “I dedicated it to him because he has always loved rock’n’roll,” she says. “The harder [and] louder, the better.”

Spurred by her 2022 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — an honor the country legend felt she needed to “earn,” initially asking to be removed from the ballot — the 30-track Rockstar finds Parton, 77, taking on rock’s classic canon and often collaborating with the songs’ original artists. Elton John hops on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Ann Wilson appears on Heart’s “Magic Man,” and John Fogerty guests on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” to name a few. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr join her rendition of The Beatles’ classic “Let It Be,” which debuted  at No. 2 on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart, marking the first time any of the four Beatles had shared credited billing with one another on a Billboard chart outside of the group. 

The album, out Friday (Nov. 17) through Butterfly Records/Big Machine Label Group, also contains nine originals, including the incendiary “World on Fire,” which topped Billboard’s Rock Digital Sales chart in May. The song gave Parton, who holds the record for the most No. 1s on Hot Country Songs by a woman (25), her first rock chart-topper.

You previously told Billboard you had never considered yourself a rock’n’roller “in any sense of the word.” Now having made this album, have you changed your opinion?

I’m beginning to feel a little rock’n’roll-y, but I’ll always be a country girl. Rockstar was kind of a tongue-in-cheek title. I thought, “Here I am, a rock star at my age.” I’ve done a few covers of some of the classic great songs in a bluegrass country version and I’ve done a few rockin’ little songs, but I’d never done a full-blown rock’n’roll album. It was a challenge, but it was a great joy. I really got into it, and I was surprised that I was able to sing it.

Your voice is so powerful on so many songs here. We don’t usually think of you as a belter.

No, but these songs required that. When you think of rock, you’ve got to do it with passion [and] power. I’ve always had a good range and fairly good pitch, so I knew that my voice would open up to it. I thought, “Well, if I screw this up, I’ve screwed up big time because I’ve got to do it good.” I wanted the rock artists, the rock field, to be proud of me if I was going to do it.

You and Steve Perry tenderly duet on the Journey classic “Open Arms,” but your husband, Carl, had suggested you cut that song years ago with another famous artist.

I’ve loved that song from day one, and that’s one of Carl’s favorite songs. He used to tell me, “You need to do ‘Open Arms’ with Kenny [Rogers].” I missed my chance with Kenny, of course. I had done the song before I’d even called Steve Perry to see if he would sing it with me. He did a beautiful job.

Did you plan to make so many of them duets from the start? 

I had recorded a lot of the songs myself before I even realized that I was really going to hit on people to come sing with me. Then after I recorded them, I was like, “Oh my goodness. If I’m going to do ‘Let It Be’ [or]  ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,’ I’m going to ask the people known for those songs if they will do it.”

Were you in the studio with any of the collaborators?

John [Fogerty] said, “Let’s just do it live like the old days.” That was one of the best times I had on the whole album. We got a big kick out of being in the booth looking at each other and really feeling what we were doing. Stevie Nicks, Ann Wilson, Debbie Harry… those were some of my favorite times working with all of them live in the studio… They all had their own magic; all had their own little personalities. 

What was your most fun day in the studio? 

Stevie Nicks stayed  four days because she got a little throat thing going on, she was kind of hoarse, and she said, “This has got to be good. I’m not screwing up your record.” So, we got a chance to sample some of our foods and so we got a chance to really visit every day when we weren’t singing. That was a fun time, spending all that time just talking about the business, talking about some of our experiences. She actually stayed with Sheryl Crow, who also sang on “You’re No Good.”

You cover The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with Brandi Carlile and P!nk. Did you approach Mick Jagger?

He wanted to do something different than “Satisfaction” because he’d already done that, so we were trying to find the right song. He was so involved in his own [upcoming] album, which I completely understand, until I ran out of time because [with] vinyl, now you have a six-month wait. We had a deadline. But I wanted so badly to sing with Mick. And then I thought, “Well, if you’re not going to sing that with me, I’m going to get some girl power going here.”

Why have originals on Rockstar?

As a writer and publisher, I thought, “Well, dumbass, you got to write a few of your own. People would expect that of you.” And if it’s really a big seller, I could make some money on it.

One of the originals, “World on Fire,” addresses lying, greedy politicians. You generally stay away from politics. Was there a particular incident that inspired the song? 

Anybody with any gumption whatsoever should have a fire in their belly about what’s going on in this world today. We’re gonna destroy ourselves with our pride and our stupidity and our greed. I felt guided to write that song. I wasn’t trying to wax political. I was just trying to make a statement, light the world on fire. Are we so crazy and disrespectful and thoughtless and heartless that we can’t even see or care what we’re doing to not only each other, but to the world? Where are we going to go if we destroy everything? I just kind of bolted right out of bed and thought I gotta go write this. I had finished the album actually…It doesn’t matter what your politics are. When I say greedy politicians, present and past. That’s all the world leaders.  I wasn’t just talking about Biden and Trump. I’m just talking about anybody present and past that wouldn’t know the truth. I’m allowed to say what I think. I don’t get involved in politics and when they make jokes and say, “Dolly for President.” I think, “No, thank you.” That would have to be the worst job on Earth. 

There was a little bit of controversy online when the track listing got announced and Kid Rock was on there singing an original song, “Either Or,” with you. Did you have any hesitation about having him on here, especially given his shooting up Bud Light cans in protest of Bud Light’s support of transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney? 

Well, I had already done the song before that all happened, all that deal with the beer cans and all that. But this song was about a bad boy and he just seemed to fit the bill because he kind of has that reputation. He likes it. That’s kind of who he is…I always try to say I don’t condemn nor condone anything, I just try to accept things and people as they are and try to love them because of and in spite of. 

Did making this album light a spark to jump into any other genre of music that you haven’t explored yet?

I don’t know yet, but I don’t plan to do another rock’n’roll [album]. I did 30 songs. I think I left enough to where they can do every kind of compilation known to man long after I’m gone from this world. So I think I’ve done it, and I hope I did it well.

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