Country Icon Throws Karaoke Party
Dolly Parton is arguably the most beloved living American. How many people are alive today because Dolly told them to get the Covid vaccine back in early 2021? Of course, she’a a paragon of country music, but her reach goes far beyond Nashville, from the disco pop of her working-woman masterpiece “9 to 5” to the soft-rock bliss of her classic Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.” And the crossover love has been reflected back; one of the most popular cover songs of all time is Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” and over the decades, everyone from the White Stripes to Marianne Faithfull to Japanese Breakfast has taken a shot at doing one of her songs.
Parton’s 49th album, Rockstar, is her first foray into rock & roll. She got the idea to do a rock covers LP after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. To make it happen, Dolly and her longtime bandleader and producer Kent Wells convened an astonishing collection of all-star duet partners. This has got to be the most stacked guest list in the history of guest lists, a karaoke night out where the party bus is stocked with a decent hunk of the most famous people ever in music. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton, and Mick Fleetwood are onboard for “Let It Be.” Elton John joins her for “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Her goddaughter Miley Cryus swings by for “Wrecking Ball.” Dolly fires up an 11-minute version of “Free Bird” with members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including the late Gary Rossington and even Ronnie Van Zant. (Ronnie died in 1977, but his widow allowed his voice to appear on the album.)
When she can’t hook up the collab of her heart’s desire, there’s always another A-lister there to pick up the slack. Dolly wanted Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for “Stairway to Heaven,” but when that didn’t work out, she called in Lizzo to kick a little hobbit-bop flute. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had a scheduling conflict, so Pink and Brandi Carlile pick up the slack for a stomp through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
As the above titles imply, Parton only goes for the biggest, splashiest most over-the-top selections. When you’re doing “Every Breath You Take” with Sting and it seems a little too subtle and understated compared to everything else, you are not messing around. Dolly’s warmth, up-for-anything spirit, and common touch bring almost everything she does endearingly down to earth, and at 77, she’s able to hold her own and work well with every heavy hitter who rolls through — whether she’s feeling her heartbeat with Steve Perry on Journey’s “Open Arms,” or searching for some pie-in-the-sky summit with Chris Stapleton on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”
The best moments are gestures of sisterly community, especially ones with fellow travelers from the 1970s. Nancy Wilson of Heart rocks out with Dolly on “Magic Man,” a great song for Parton to do since it brings to mind her own Coat of Many Colors gem “Traveling Man,” a similar tale of foreboding romantic hunger. Parton recalls her disco-crossover days by hitting the dance floor with Blondie’s Debbie Harry for a blissed-out glide through “Heart of Glass.” One of the most moving moments comes when Dolly, Emmylou Harris, and Sheryl Crow honor their friend Linda Ronstadt, who has been sidelined from music for health reasons, with a version of her classic “You’re No Good.”
There are some original songs too (including “I Dreamed About Elvis,” in which she sings about meeting the King of Rock & Roll, played by country veteran Ronnie McDowell, in a dream), but even when abetted by rockers like Rob Halford of Judas Priest or Stevie Nicks, the new material struggles to get noticed amid all of the classic-rock fireworks. It also might’ve been nice if more songs had been culled from her own story, like the version of her song “My Blue Tears,” done here as a pipe-and-drums ballad with Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. How about “Love Is Like a Butterfly” with Michael Stipe? Or maybe “Here You Come Again” with Megan Moroney?
One new song people are talking about (but not in a good way) is a tune called “Either Or,” with Kid Rock. It’s an unfortunate choice given the Kid’s recent Trump-y antics. But, hey, poor judgment is as much a part of rock as guitar solos, bad hair, and power ballads. And besides, Dolly could do a whole album of Meat Loaf songs with Steve Bannon and we’d still always love her. With Rockstar, she’s put her own down-home glam stamp on the museum of rock & roll.
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