Dolly Parton has always been something of a rock star, but a year ago the status was made official with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her bonafides are further bolstered with next week’s release of Rockstar, a star-studded album – Sting! Stevie Nicks! Paul McCartney! Kid Rock? – of classic-rock cover songs.
The Jolene singer-songwriter spoke to The Globe and Mail about Taylor Swift, climbing the Stairway to Heaven and an incident with Elvis Presley that left her all shook up.
You’re putting out a rock album and Cher has a Christmas record. What’s next, a disco project from Carole King?
Oh, she might! At our age whatever we’d like to do, we’d like to think we’d at least get a chance to try. Don’t you think?
Your Rockstar album is proof of that.
I’m proud of it. It’s a lot of my favourite songs. Since they put me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought I needed to have some sort of rock ‘n’ roll album.
Your initial impulse was to decline the induction, yes?
I didn’t know what to think. But they convinced me my music had influenced other genres. I accepted it gracefully, but I still didn’t think I’d done enough to earn the honour.
Country music has influenced rock music for sure, but aren’t we now seeing the vice versa, with loud, electric country music of today serving as the modern version of classic rock?
There’s a lot of truth to what you say. But there are a lot of great country people who will continue to do the real, good country. It’s okay to have some rock in there, though. I think they’re sincere about it. But I’m like you – sometimes it gets too loud.
You’re headlining the halftime show for a Thanksgiving Day game this month. What do you think of the complaints by football fans that Taylor Swift’s appearances at games involving her boyfriend are distracting?
Taylor is so sweet. Wherever she goes, she’s going to be pointed out. She’s just so loved right now, people want their little piece of her. But I’m just going to do the halftime show. The camera won’t be going back and forth to me during the game. So, hopefully I won’t be distracting. I can’t say anything bad about Taylor.
You literally can’t. Her fans would not stand for it.
I can’t believe how popular she is right now all over the world. She’s worked hard. She’s quite the little artist.
Your album features a lot of illustrious guests. Do you actually get in the studio with, say, Paul McCartney, or was it all done remotely?
It was a variety. Many people did it from wherever they were, like Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. But I was lucky enough to get in a studio with John Fogerty. It was a four-hour session, like the old days. I got to be in the studio with Ann Wilson, and I got to be in the studio with Debbie Harry and Stevie Nicks. The others, we recorded it remotely, as you do. Thank goodness there are so many ways to record without actually being with the people.
But isn’t it true you don’t use computers or e-mails?
I stay in touch with the real world. I call in, I call out. I have a whole company with the best high-tech people. I tell them what I want, and they do it. If I had to talk to everybody who wanted to get in touch with me, I’d never get any work done.
What is your history with rock music?
I’ve been rocking since the day I was born. I grew up loving Elvis and Little Richard. I think there’s some rock ‘n’ roll in all of us country people.
Is it true Elvis Presley didn’t record your song I Will Always Love You because you wouldn’t give him half the publishing rights?
Actually, it was not Elvis. It was [his manager] Colonel Tom Parker. But, yes, Elvis had invited me down to the studio. He was going to record it the next day. But then Colonel Tom Parker called me before the session and said, “You do know that we don’t record anything with Elvis without half the publishing.” I said, “Well, I’m really sorry about that.” I wouldn’t allow it.
Do you regret the decision?
I was heartbroken. I wanted Elvis to sing it. He was disappointed too. I found out later, from Priscilla, that he loved the song. And that he had sung it to her on the steps of the courthouse when they divorced.
That’s a great story for you to have. But I bet you’d rather have the royalties from an Elvis recording of the song.
Probably. I do love the story, though. And to answer your question, I don’t regret it. When Whitney Houston later recorded I Will Always Love You, I was so glad. I got all the money for writing the song and the publishing.
One of the big surprises on your new album is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. You don’t think it is untouchable?
I’ve always loved that song. It’s my husband’s favourite. I like the delicate verses, and I felt it fit my voice well. It has a mountain, old-world sound to it.
“In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings.” That could be you.
Why, thank you.
You close the album with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird, which, as a cover song, is a bit of a running rock ‘n’ roll joke. But your version is poignant, with the line, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Do you think about your legacy much?
I should have said, “How will you remember me?” I try to do good things, like the Imagination Library, which is a free book-giving program. I want to be remembered as a good writer and a song stylist. I do hope that I’ve left something good behind when I go.
This interview has been edited and condensed.