Courtesy of Butterfly Records. Photos by Vijat Mohindra.

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Dolly Parton on Loving Keith Urban, Working With Stevie Nicks & Making Her First Rock Album

Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with the country music legend ahead of her presenting turn at the 2023 ARIA Awards

Some artists don’t live up to one’s expectation during an interview, but that was never likely to happen with Dolly Parton.

When Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with the country music legend last week, just after she was sensationally announced as one of the presenters at the 2023 ARIA Awards, she was full of her trademark Tennessean charm and vivacity. Her iconic style was there, too, the platinum blonde hair teased up into a spiky punk rock look, her fingers adorned with vibrant red nails and chunky, silver rings.

Parton certainly had a lot to discuss over Zoom from her glamorous Nashville office. On Friday, November 17th, she’ll release her first-ever rock album, Rockstar, which hosts a remarkable amount of impressive collaborators, from Paul McCartney to Lizzo, Stevie Nicks to Debbie Harry, Joan Jett to Elton John (Kid Rock’s even on there, an inclusion that Parton felt warranted a fierce public defence). The singer-songwriter’s 49th studio album features nine originals and 21 cover versions, Parton and her cohorts taking on such classics as “Heart of Glass”, “Purple Rain”, and “We Are the Champions”.

Read our full conversation with Parton below, in which she discussed being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, working with so many fellow legends for Rockstar, her admiration for Australia’s biggest country music export Keith Urban, and much more.

Dolly Parton’s Rockstar is out Friday, November 17th (pre-order here). 

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: Dolly, it’s incredible that you’re releasing your 49th studio album. How are you feeling about the release of Rockstar?

Dolly Parton: I’ll be happy to finally get this record out. The whole process took a year, and it seems like I’ve been talking about it for just as long! I’m eager to see what people think about it,  and I hope people enjoy hearing it as much as we enjoyed putting it together – it was a lot of fun.

Rockstar marks your first-ever rock album. What inspired you to venture into this new genre at this stage in your career?

That’s a great question with a good answer. Well, they went ahead and put me in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – go figure that one. Anyway, when I heard about that, I couldn’t help but think, ‘What have I done to deserve that?’ Then they gave me a whole list of people whose music I had influenced and all that, and it hit me that if they were going to induct me, I might as well accept it gracefully.

So I embraced it, and then it dawned on me that timing is everything. I think I need to have some reason to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, so that’s why I decided to create a rock album.  I chose a lot of these great songs that we all love, collaborated with iconic artists, many of whom are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and now here we are.

How does it feel to add a proper rock album to your musical legacy?

It feels good, actually. I’m proud of this as anything I’ve done. I think it’s some of my best work. I think this album, in particular, shows me more as a singer than anything has in the past. When I get to sing songs that everybody knows, and songs that are really good, it lets me present myself more as a singer, not a writer. I just really got to be a singer on these, and I loved it. 

Is there a specific song you worked on that holds a special place in your heart?

Well, the one that holds the best place is the anthem that I wrote, “World on Fire”, about the problems of the world and how it troubles me and, of course, every day we see it more and more. As for the other songs, there are so many remarkable ones, like “Let It Be” that I did with Paul McCartney and Ringo [Starr].

And I love songs like “Open Arms” where I had the chance to sing with Steve Perry from Journey, who did it originally. Also there’s “Satisfaction” that I got to do with P!nk & Brandi Carlile. There’s just so many great artists on this record. 

Given the incredible list of collaborators, is there a particularly memorable moment you had working with any of these artists?

There were many favourite moments. I love John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. John, being the one who wrote all of their big hits,  and I are about the same age. When he came to Nashville, it felt like the old days. We got the musicians in the studio for a three-hour session, all singing our parts and harmonies at the same time. John stayed down in Nashville for a couple of days, so that was great.

Same thing with Stevie Nicks. She came down to Nashville and we spent a few days together. We went into the studio and had such fun singing her song, “What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You”, which she wrote years ago. Debbie Harry from Blondie also came down and I got to know her, and Heart’s Ann Wilson too.

Just hearing these talented women singing these songs in my headphones while working with me was just great. A lot of them did it from their own studios, so it was just fun embracing all the different ways people work nowadays. 

Ahead of the ARIA Awards, are you a fan of any Australian country music artists? We have such a strong country music scene here.

Absolutely you do. But the one I love the most is one that’s over here with us – Keith Urban. I had the honour of inducting Keith into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago. He’s always been a favourite of mine. But I really don’t get to stay up on all the new music as much as I’d like. I’m sure Keith has some really good tips! 

I’m sure he does! Finally, now that you’ve done a rock album, are there any other musical genres that you’d like to explore in the future? 

Well, I hope to one day create a great inspirational album, although I’ve done a few things like that through the years. If I live long enough and get the opportunity, I’d like to do a great R&B album, maybe reinterpreting some classic pop songs. I’m currently working on transforming my life story into a Broadway musical, so that might very well be my next musical endeavour. 

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