If there’s one press conference that needs no pre-meditation, no hype-up and almost no introduction, it would be that of Dolly Parton. Promoting her upcoming rock ‘n’ roll album Rockstar. With her new book, the second in the series Behind The Seams: My Life In Rhinestones, due soon, we were lucky enough to meet the Queen Of Country herself on a bustling Thursday afternoon in London.
Words: Monty Sewell
Any high-profile musician who makes a sudden turn into a different genre is met with scepticism from critics and pre-judged distaste from their fans. But in this instance, things are somewhat different. With sixty years in the industry, eleven Grammy’s won and an unprecedented amount of high-profile collaborations under her belt, Ms Parton is not one to go by uncertainly.
So when it was announced she was releasing an album that would feature her in a total encapsulation of pure rock ‘n’ roll rumble, the one response that took the industry by the tongue was, “When, where and how the tootin’ hell can we get our hands on it?”
Having already released three original tracks (World On Fire, Bygones, Magic Man) from the cover-heavy record, it was already noted as steering away from the usual industry veteran mixtape give out, garnishing critical acclaim and brilliant announcing performance at the ACM’s. After settling into our seats at the luxurious (I mean, it is Dolly Parton, after all) central Four Seasons Hotel ballroom, we were introduced to the conference with a live recording of this performance. Not so much a declaration of a world in turmoil as a wage of war on her own legacy, it was the perfect announcement into this new Dolly era of rock.
As the video finished ended and the clapping simmered down, our suited and booted host of the afternoon swung his hand declaratively to the right.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Ms Dolly Parton.”
The room of about 50 erupt into applause as the country star, an icon of a lifetime, enters the ballroom dressed in a show-stopping hot pink, bedazzled jumpsuit, complete with sky-high, needle-heeled, shock silver over-the-knee boots. Hair piled high and a face filled, smiling with that intoxicating Dolly warmth, she steps up onto the stage to stand for the few minutes the photographers get to shoot. She is everything you would expect from Dolly Parton and more, a true honour to witness one of the biggest names in the world give us her time so elegantly.
“Hi, ya’ll, thank you so much for coming.”
As the cameras stop snapping, the mic begins to be passed around with two questions each, every word rippling with eager excitement to hear from the woman herself.
From legacy to the sudden swerve away from her country roots, Parton is nothing but charismatically respectful, with the convictive diligence of a well-versed press conference maestro.
“I’ve lived my whole life mainly in country music, and I love it,” she says. “I have done a few rock covers here and there over the years, but I’ve never deliberately decided so much to do a real rock ‘n’ roll album with real rock ‘n’ roll iconic songs and the songs I also wrote for the album in keeping with that.
“So this is a whole new thing for me, and I just really put my whole heart and soul into it, and I like to think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. I was so touched that all these people I wanted to be on the album seemed to really want to be on it, and I’m really proud of who we have on it. I went places I didn’t think I would ever go and had real joy doing it. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever done.”
Having a singular discography enough to cover ten artists, we got to hear her plans to release even more material after Rockstar and beyond.
“I do have one more big album that I want to do so that I feel like I’ve accomplished everything. I want to do a great gospel album and to have that left behind and really do something great. Something up-lifting. You think about what’s happening in the world, and you think, ‘I’m not going to be around here that long,’ so I want to leave some kind of message and something for others to lean on. I’ll probably also be doing more rock songs. Elton John just asked if I want to sing on his next album, and I said well, yes, you sing on mine, I’ll sing on yours.”
Having seen clips of her old friend Elton at Glastonbury last week, it was a nostalgic hark back to her own performance in 2014, which saw record-breaking numbers pouring in to catch a glimpse of her on The Pyramid Stage. Though her fandom is vast, the question of what her die-hard country fans thought of her dive into rock was, of course, brought into view.
“Well, actually, my country fans now are proud of this album, and I actually debuted World On Fire on the Academy Country Music Awards because I wanted them to feel like they were a part of it, a part of this journey. When I first made the change to cross over, some people thought I was making a mistake, but I just said I ain’t leaving country. I’ll be country wherever I am. So nobody can deny the fact that I’m not country. I don’t think I’ll lose any country fans, and if I do, I won’t be mean, and I won’t miss them.”
Ever that infamous Dolly humorous wit present, it is not the first bout of laughter she rouses from the room. Mentioning the time she was bet to enter a Dolly Parton look-alike contest and actually lost is just a titbit into her fascinatingly wild life and a testament to what we adore about her as a person as well as a musician.
The collaborations we will get to see on the album are colossal (Ann Wilson, Steven Tyler, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Chris Stapleton, Peter Frampton, Miley Cyrus, P!nk, Elton John Paul McCartney, Mick Fleetwood, Gary Rossington, Nikki Sixx, Ringo Star, Debbie Harry and more). With the released track Bygones featuring vocalist legend Rob Halford it was a chance to find out how this one of many features came to be.
“When I was lining up to enter the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, Rob Halford was there – I think Judas Priest won an award that night – and we were all singing Jolene on stage. In between takes during commercials, me and Rob got to talking. He told me he had always been a huge fan, and his whole family had all my albums, knowing songs you’d have to be a fan to know. My husband loves Judas Priest as well, and I asked Rob if I do a rock album would he be on it? He said he would be honoured. Our original song Bygones is number 1 right now. Me and my producer wrote that song, and we thought it would be great for Rob, and he did a great job on it.”
Parton also mentioned due to scheduling conflicts, she was unable to get Mick Jagger on the record, which was her one wish not to come true.
With a few mere minutes left of the conference, our host turns to Dolly to ask if we can push on for another slice. “Of course, I’d love to.”
In the final few minutes, we can grab Parton gets a chance to speak about her charity, the Imagination Library. Honouring her father, who grew up without the chance to learn how to read, the programme has donated just over 200 million books and continues to shine a light on her outstanding work as a philanthropist.
With a final question wrapping up the event, we get some final words in the truest of Dolly Parton ways.
“My message to everybody is to love one another,” She says. “I truly think that it is not my place to judge anybody, and it’s not anybody’s place to judge anybody. I try to find a light in everybody. In my family, in my immediate circle, I have some of everybody in this world. I’ve got gays, I’ve got lesbians, I’ve got transgender people, I got drag queens, I’ve got drunks. I am not an activist. I am not political. I believe we all just need to care for each other and this world because it’s all we have.”
As Parton left the room, the only thing more dazzling than the jewels on her outfit were the smiles on people’s faces. I can honestly say it was monumental to get those 45 minutes with someone who has had more influence and reach on this world than most could dream of in a hundred lifetimes.
But successes aside, what was truly great was to understand why she is such an idol finally. Dolly Parton is as courteous as she is courageous, funny as she is flattering and simply a star.
The album Rockstar will no doubt be yet another demonstration of her work as a talented and versatile artist. So the only question that remains is, is there anything Dolly can’t do?
Dolly Parton releases Rockstar via Butterfly Records/Big Machine Records on 17 November 2023. You can read more about Rockstar, here.