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Dolly Parton has made a rock & roll album — with a little help from her friends

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you get nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and you're Dolly Parton, you decline graciously at first.

DOLLY PARTON: So I just felt I would be taking away from someone that maybe deserved it, certainly more than me 'cause I never considered myself a rock artist.

SUMMERS: When she spoke to NPR last year, she changed course. After she learned that the Hall of Fame isn't strictly for rock musicians, she said she'd accept if she were inducted. But Dolly Parton, country music all-time legend - she had to make some rock music to justify that honor.

PARTON: I just started recording songs that I thought would be great, and then before I knew it, I had 30 songs. I thought, well, I got to narrow this down. But the more I listened, the better they sounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKSTAR")

PARTON: (Singing) Rock star.

This is the first and only rock album I've ever been involved in, and so I just went for it.

SUMMERS: We got her back on the phone because today Dolly Parton releases that album. It's called "Rockstar." Like she mentioned, it is 30 songs - nine originals, 21 classic covers - often with major stars of today or with the artists who made those songs famous in the first place, like Elton John, Joan Jett, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks or the remaining members of The Beatles. I asked her how she went about finding those collaborators.

PARTON: Well, just one day I thought, wow, wouldn't it be great to have Paul McCartney on "Let It Be"? And then after Paul was on and playing, I thought, oh, wow, we got to get Ringo Starr on this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT BE")

PARTON: (Singing) When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.

PAUL MCCARTNEY AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.

PARTON: So I just sent them a love note through their managers, and I just said what I was doing. And I said, I didn't want to put you on the spot, but I'd love to have you sing with me on my rock album. And if you're interested, call me at this number. And all the people I reached out to said, yes, we'd love to, and I was very honored and very proud and very humbled by that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT BE")

PARTON: (Singing) Let it be.

PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Let it be.

PARTON: (Singing) Let it be.

MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Let it be.

PARTON: (Singing) Let it be.

MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Let it be.

PARTON: (Singing) Let it be.

SUMMERS: And I understand that your husband, Carl Thomas Dean, had a hand in the concept for this record, and I've been told that you picked many of his favorite songs on this album. Was there one that you were really particularly excited for him to hear?

PARTON: Yeah. I wanted him to hear my real version of "Stairway To Heaven." And I had done a version of that years before, and he said, is that "Stairwell To Hell," or is that "Stairway To Heaven"? So I definitely wanted him to hear how I did it being true to form.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

PARTON: (Singing) If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen.

SUMMERS: What did your husband have to say when he heard this album?

PARTON: You know, it was so funny 'cause I never have bothered him a lot with my music. And he's a hard rocker. I mean, that's always been his favorite music ever, and I've heard that all through the years we've been together - 60 years come this spring. But when I told him - I said, well, I've recorded my rock album. There's 30 songs. He said, 30 songs. And then when it was all over, he said, well, I have to say that's pretty damn good. So for him to say that would be like somebody else jumping up and down, you know, with pompoms. That was all I needed to hear because I knew he liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

PARTON: (Singing) And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls, there walks a lady we all know.

SUMMERS: There are so many incredible covers on this album, but there is one song that is not a cover that I want to ask about specifically. It is called "World On Fire." And I know that you try to avoid politics in your art, but this song - well, it is clearly angry about something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD ON FIRE")

PARTON: (Singing) Liar, liar. The world's on fire. What you going to do when it all burns down? Fire, fire, burning higher - still got time to turn it all around.

SUMMERS: How did it come to you?

PARTON: I wasn't angry. I was fearful. I was worried and grieved about the state that the world is in. Watching the world just burn down around us with all the craziness, all the war, all the famine and the politics - you know, the great divide, I guess, is more what I'm talking about - and what it's even doing to families, even my own. It was not political to me. In that verse where I said, you know, don't get me started on politics, meaning, you know, the way we have to live - I might as well have just said, leaders of the world, present and past, you'd better make a change, and you better do it fast. That's what I was saying. And I thought that it would ease the hearts and minds of the few people that said, wow, that's exactly how I feel. I'm glad she wrote that. And if it does nothing more, then it's just good listening to think, well, I'm glad somebody at least said it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD ON FIRE")

PARTON: (Singing) Can we rise above? Can't we show some love? Do we just give up or make a change?

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about another woman who appears on your record, and that is Miley Cyrus. The two of you have this incredible duet with "Wrecking Ball." And Miley Cyrus is someone that you've not only known for a long time, but she's someone who we've all really seen grow up in the public eye who's become a different type of performer. What was that like?

PARTON: Well, I've known Miley before she was even born. I worked with her daddy, Billy Ray, when he had "Achy Breaky Heart." And before she was even born, he said, well, you got to be the godmother of this baby coming along. And then when she had her "Hannah Montana" show, she wanted me on the show as her Aunt Dolly. But then when Miley left the show, she was trying desperately for people to see her as Miley Cyrus, not Hannah Montana. So she had to go to extremes to do that, and I got that. I understood it. But Miley is such a great artist. She's a great writer. She's a great singer, a great actress. So Miley will always be doing something great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRECKING BALL")

PARTON: (Singing) I never meant to start a war.

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) I never meant to start a war.

PARTON: (Singing) I just wanted you to let me in.

CYRUS: (Singing) Let me in.

PARTON: (Singing) And instead of using force...

CYRUS: (Singing) Using force.

PARTON: (Singing) ...I guess I should've...

MILEY CYRUS AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Let you win.

SUMMERS: I mean, you are a household name, and you have been in the public eye for so long between performing and songwriting and acting and charitable giving and now bridging genres. How do you stay true to yourself with all of that reinvention for all of these years?

PARTON: Well, that's why I am where I'm at and still where I'm at because I just am myself. I'm safe in being me 'cause I know who that is. I know what I will and won't do. I know what I can and can't do. But I'm able to because I feel I have enough talent to back it up. I don't want to just be all hype. You know, if I say I'm going to do something, I think about that and think, yeah, I believe I can pull that off. And so I'll continue to do that. I've been doing this for six decades now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S UP?")

PARTON: (Singing) All of these years, and my life is still just trying to get up that great, big hill of hope for a destination. I realized quickly when I knew I should that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man, for whatever that means.

SUMMERS: Dolly Parton. Her new album is "Rockstar." Dolly, thank you so much for being here.

PARTON: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me and letting me talk about my rock album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S UP?")

PARTON: (Singing) And so I wake up in the morning, and I step outside. And I take a deep breath and wonder why, and I scream at the top of my lungs, what's going on? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.