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Dolly Parton’s ‘Rockstar’ Album Review: Does the Icon Pull It Off?

Everyone’s favorite singer-songwriter swings for the fences with her first big rock album, and the results are mixed

spinner image Dolly Parton attends Dolly Parton's Rockstar VIP Album Release Party in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dolly Parton attends her Rockstar VIP Album Release Party with American Greetings on Nov. 16, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for American Greetings

Good golly, Miss Dolly! Country music’s grande dame has caught a case of rockin’ pneumonia.

At 77, Dolly Parton has released the first rock album of her 64-year recording career. Rockstar, a 30-song set with nine originals and 21 mostly household rock tunes, is a mixed bag that’s too competently executed to be dismissed as a novelty and too ill-conceived to stand alongside the country landmarks in her catalog.

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It’s also very Dollyesque: excessive, lovably absurd, impossible to ignore and stacked — with celebrities. Among those on board are Elton John, 76, Paul McCartney, 81, Ringo Starr, 83, Sting, 72, Steven Tyler, 75, Melissa Etheridge, 62, Joan Jett, 65, Debbie Harry, 78, and Stevie Nicks, 75. 

spinner image Dolly Parton with an electric guitar
Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy of Butterfly Records

The album, her 49th, was inspired by Parton’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an honor she initially declined, explaining that she hadn’t earned such a distinction. She also made the album to please Carl Dean, her husband of 57 years and a hard rock devotee.

Rockstar isn’t Parton’s first stab at rock. Her debut single, 1959’s “Puppy Love,” was a bubblegum rocker. She released versions of the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “Great Balls of Fire” and the Beatles’ “Help!” in 1979. And Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me” appears on 2014’s Blue Smoke.

On the new album, the rhinestone cowgirl’s transformation to rock belter falls short, despite her irrepressible enthusiasm. While Parton radiates her usual unbridled cheer and positivity, she lacks the requisite rebellion and scrappiness that give rock an authentic kick. And she just can’t suppress that quivery Tennessee twang.

spinner image Dolly Parton sitting on a motorcycle
Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy of Butterfly Records

Rocker Barbie is introduced in the Parton-penned title track. The song opens with a hokey sketch that finds Parton practicing electric guitar riffs as voices warn her against straying from what she knows, a reminder of the Nashville Music Row skeptics she faced down decades ago.

This time, the caution seems reasonable in light of Rockstar’s missteps. At two hours and 20 minutes, Rockstar is too long. Given Parton’s savvy songwriting skills, her tin ear for rock music is inexplicable. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (which she also recorded for 2002’s Halos and Horns album) are clichés. Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” is a Beavis and Butt-Head punch line. And the Queen medley “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You,” modern-day half-time fare, comes across as pure camp. Parton deserves better.

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And in fact, she delivers better on her own compositions. Her winking, lively “Bygones” is also a bit campy, but it’s solid pop metal beefed up by Rob Halford, 72, of Judas Priest and Nikki Sixx, 64, of Mötley Crüe.

Most of the covers are note-for-note facsimiles of the originals, which gives the project a marathon karaoke feel. Her shimmering trill and vibrato are distinctive stamps, but fresh arrangements would have added artistic oomph to Rockstar’s obvious commercial appeal.

When Parton accesses her inner rock banshee, she can be formidable, as in her charging version of the hit by Pat Benatar, 70, “Heartbreaker.” She can also overdo it. When she and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler take on “I Want You Back,” it sounds like a contest to determine who can wake up more neighbors.

On the plus side, Parton’s voice is as silvery and vital as ever, and she easily matches or eclipses the performances of her A-list guests. She and John Fogerty, 78, bring an elegiac beauty to the Creedence Clearwater Revival nugget “Long as I Can See the Light.” Parton and goddaughter Miley Cyrus turn in a vocally dazzling “Wrecking Ball,” a Cyrus hit. “Night Moves” by Bob Seger, 78, gets a steamy makeover with duet partner Chris Stapleton. And Stevie Nicks joins the country legend on a flip and frolicking “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You.”

Parton especially shines on a soaring rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and her own “My Blue Tears,” a gem from 1971’s Coat of Many Colors remade as a wistful power ballad with Simon Le Bon, 65.

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One of the few surprises here is the Parton original “World on Fire,” an urgent, ireful slam at corrupt politicians and rare commentary from the usually apolitical singer. Released in May, the song topped Billboard’s rock digital sales chart, giving Parton her first number 1 in the rock realm. (She holds the record for most number 1 country songs — 25 — by a woman.)

Parton told Billboard, “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?”

With its conjuring of Armageddon, “World on Fire” checks a box in rock music themes. So does “I Dreamed About Elvis,” a daffy Parton original punctuated by country singer Ronnie McDowell’s cornball King of Rock impression.

Parton deserves credit for outfitting herself in a style that isn’t a particularly good fit. Now that she’s done her twirl in the rock spotlight, she can go back to being a supersonic global celebrity beloved by all.

spinner image Dolly Parton sitting in the driver's seat of a car
Vijat Mohindra/Courtesy of Butterfly Records

Rockstar is available as a two-CD set, four-LP set and digital download, and on streaming services.

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