5 takeaways from Dolly Parton's "Rockstar," her glorious tribute to rock 'n' roll

From Beatles to Blondie, Dolly reimagines iconic songs, delivers original barn burners and has a blast doing it

Published November 18, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Dolly Parton's "Rockstar" (Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy Butterfly Records)
Dolly Parton's "Rockstar" (Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy Butterfly Records)

Never doubt Dolly Parton when she says she’s going to do something. Take, for instance, when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 and vowed to make a rock ‘n’ roll record. A little over a year later, that album “Rockstar” is here.

“I still thought I needed to earn it,” she told the Hollywood Reporter, referring to her induction. “That’s why I thought, ‘Well, timing is perfect. There’s a real reason for me to do this rock ’n’ roll album. Here I am a rock star at 77.’”

As a country icon, Parton could’ve made a record focused on genres in her wheelhouse, like Southern rock or Americana. However, she told the Hollywood Reporter she wanted to avoid the easy route: “I don’t want it to be half-a** country.” 

To quote one of Parton’s most famous songs, “Rockstar” reflects several heaping cups of ambition. The 30-track album bursts with star power — to name just a few, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Steve Perry, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald, Debbie Harry and Joan Jett — and features a healthy mix of covers and originals.

Best of all, “Rockstar” doesn’t skimp on fun — it’s clear Parton is having a ball unleashing her not-so-inner rockstar. Here are five takeaways from “Rockstar”

Parton sounds like a natural collaborating with hard rockers

One of the album’s highlights is a slinky cover of Heart’s 1975 single “Magic Man” featuring two members who played on the original song: vocalist Ann Wilson and guitarist Howard Leese. 


Thematically, “Magic Man” feels like a classic Parton yarn, as it’s about a young woman bewitched by an older (and dangerous) man. Vocally, Parton makes the song her own, taking the perspective of a wise-beyond-her-years narrator looking back at her youthful self. Musically, it sounds gloriously like 1975 — with a new bridge added during which Parton and Wilson generate a mystical vibe that’s transcendent.



Elsewhere, she teams up with fellow Class of 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo for a barnburning version of their smash “Heartbreaker,” while her take on REO Speedwagon’s epic power ballad “Keep on Loving You” with that band’s vocalist Kevin Cronin is a delightful surprise that brims with emotion.

Her ‘80s collaborations are on point

Parton enjoyed great mainstream pop success in the 1980s thanks to tracks like and her Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream,” so it’s perhaps no surprise that she sounds fantastic collaborating with that decade’s icons. 


Of particular note is an inspired cover of the Police’s 1983 smash “Every Breath You Take” with Sting that’s reimagined as a meditative country smolder with curled pedal steel, shaded vocals and glacial grooves. This also features one of Parton’s best vocal performances: She taps into the obsession at the heart of the song and imbues it with deep, guttural longing — transforming “Every Breath You Take” from a menacing stalker’s anthem to a song for heartbroken outsiders forced to watch an ex move on without them. 



Parton also sounds tender on a faithful version of Journey’s 1981 hit “Open Arms”—in no small part because former Journey frontman Steve Perry adds smoky vocal contributions throughout. He emphasizes certain lines to underscore the song’s pleading tone (“This empty house seems so cold,” “Please stay”) and harmonizes perfectly with Parton. 


On a completely different note, Parton goes toe-to-toe vocally with Joan Jett on a snarling cover of 1988’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” that starts with a brief interlude where the two banter back and forth about being dealing with frustrating love.

Dolly Parton's RockstarDolly Parton's "Rockstar" (Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy Butterfly Records)

She has a generous definition of rock ‘n’ roll, with lovely results

The definition of rock ‘n’ roll is notoriously malleable — and Parton leans into that idea, with dynamite results. 


She and Melissa Etheridge team up for the fierce Heartland rocker "Tried to Rock and Roll Me," while her Michael McDonald duet “Bittersweet” brims with lovely acoustic guitars and  anguished vocal performances. 


Elsewhere, Parton teams up with “Trio” collaborator Emmylou Harris to honor the third member of their troupe, Linda Ronstadt, with a fantastic cover of Ronstadt’s signature tune, “You’re No Good” that also features Sheryl Crow



And she collaborates with another 2022 Rock Hall inductee, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, for a new take on her 1971 song “My Blue Tears.” Hewing toward Celtic folk — tin whistle and all — before majestic electric guitars storm into the mix, the tune finds both Le Bon and Parton demonstrating deeply moving vocal vulnerability.

Her original rock songs pack a punch

Given her decades-long track record of writing indelible tunes, it only makes sense that Parton would also write some original rock songs for “Rockstar.” The incendiary “Bygones" — which features Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Parton’s Rock Hall BFF Rob Halford of Judas Priest on venomous vocals — is a ferocious hard rock-metal hybrid that works beautifully.


Driven by jagged guitar riffs, the haunting single “World On Fire” also pulls no punches critiquing the state of the world today: “Greedy politicians present and past / They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ‘em in the a**.” 



In an interview with TODAY, Parton clarified who she was talking about: “All of (the politicians). Any of ‘em. I don’t think any of ‘em are trying hard enough. I’m sure we’re all trying, but I just really think often that they worry more about their party than they do about the people.”

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The Stevie Nicks duet exceeds any expectations

The internet lost their collective mind when Stevie Nicks shared a photo of her and Parton in the studio together. The resulting collaboration, "What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You,” exceeded every expectation. The song has been circulating for years as a demo from the sessions from Nicks’ 1985 solo album “Rock-a-Little,” and this modern version is bluesy hard rock with languid honky-tonk guitars and plenty of attitude.



"Rockstar," the 49th solo studio album by Dolly Parton, is out now.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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