Dolly Parton has accomplished everything. She has established herself as the dominant figure in Nashville’s music industry, sold 100 million records, written numerous timeless songs, made her mark in Hollywood, launched her own theme park, and had a type of lichen, a Soviet tank, and a cloned sheep named after her. It’s a wonderful and well-deserved achievement, but it also presents a dilemma: what comes next?
Her 49th solo album attempts to answer this question. Rockstar came about when Parton was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She first declined to be inducted, saying she was a country artist, then reconsidered, announcing she would record a rock album to justify her inclusion. One wants to like the results – as the Hall of Fame story, with its cocktail of self-deprecation and can-do attitude underlines, Parton isn’t just hugely talented but immensely likable – yet a distinct sense of panic sets in when you see the tracklist, on which a sprinkling of Parton originals mix with covers often featuring the original artists or big-name latter day substitutes: Elton John, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Pink. The song selection suggests either Parton has what you might charitably describe as a very basic relationship with rock music, or she’s opted for marquee-name crowd pleasing. It looks like a forced march through the results of a Radio 2 poll to find The Nation’s Favourite Rock Anthems: We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You, Stairway to Heaven and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Every Breath You Take, Free Bird, Let It Be, Heart of Glass and – there’s no accounting for taste in these polls, is there? – What’s Up? by 4 Non Blondes. But it’s the sheer length of the tracklist that gets you searching for a brown paper bag to breathe into. It goes on and on like a blockbuster movie’s end credits. Rockstar features 30 songs and lasts the best part of two and half hours, which even someone desperate to hear Dolly Parton sing Stairway to Heaven a deux with Lizzo might consider too much of a good thing.
The material of Rockstar could have been more interesting if they had chosen to do something creative with it. However, every cover on this album seems to closely mirror the original version. Listening to it feels like being stuck in a karaoke bar where Dolly Parton, who had surprised and delighted the audience with her performance, is now drunkenly refusing to give up the microphone. While she still has a great voice, it is also very distinct, and it doesn’t quite fit these songs in these arrangements. In particular, her rendition of “We Are the Champions” sounds very out of place. She sings “Every Breath You Take” with great power, but it takes away from the subtle creepiness of the song.
Not everything here is negative. She excels in the downhome southern rock sound of Freebird and when singing with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus on Wrecking Ball. The hymnal mood of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Long As I Can See the Light is a perfect fit for her. Parton’s own songs range from decent to exceptional, although some may question whether My Blue Tears, originally from 1971’s Coat of Many Colours, is truly improved by the addition of a vocal by Simon Le Bon. However, Bygones is a delight – a stadium metal track written by Parton herself that doesn’t come off as a parody, featuring guest appearances from Rob Halford and Nikki Sixx. It does make one wonder though – if she can write rock songs of this caliber, why is she still performing Keep on Loving You with the lead singer of REO Speedwagon?
There are other ways to imagine Rockstar being approached in a more enjoyable manner. Perhaps it would have been better if Parton had incorporated these songs into her own style. It is unlikely that anyone would have put hearing a country or bluegrass rendition of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” at the top of their musical wish list, but it surely would have been better than the generic version presented here. However, a country album would have missed the point. The skit that opens Rockstar features Parton pretending to play metal guitar, only to be interrupted by two southern voices advising her to stick to what she knows. These voices are likely meant to represent the naysayers of Music Row, whom Parton bravely defied earlier in her career. But as a listener, struggling through a rendition of Aerosmith’s “I Want You Back” where both Parton and Steven Tyler sing with such intense force that it becomes more of a competition to see who can harm the other’s hearing first, those southern voices start to sound like the voice of reason rather than close-minded gatekeepers.
Alexis listened to music this week.
PinkPantheress – Bury Me ft Kelela
Currently, I am enjoying this piece of music. However, I fear that my teenage daughter will soon play it so much that I will never want to listen to it again. The Auto-Tuned sweetness of PP’s music is balanced perfectly by Kelela’s unique blend of R&B.