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Dolly Parton, Rockstar, review: full rhinestone rock, with a touch of Judas Priest

Trying something new: Dolly Parton
Trying something new: Dolly Parton - Andres Kudacki

The queen of country sings Queen: are you ready for Dolly Parton belting out a medley of We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You with her quivery Tennessee inflections rising over what sounds like the massed drummers of Kerrang?

For her 49th album, Parton has gone full Rhinestone rock. It may seem a little late in the game for Nashville’s favourite fairy godmother to squeeze her shapely frame into studded leather, pose on motorcycles and start singing about wanting to be a rock star (as she does on the self-penned title song), but the 77-year-old singer-songwriter-actress-producer-author-philanthropist-businesswoman and theme park owner has never been shy when it comes to the power of branding. No cliché is left unturned in an effort to restyle Parton as a rock Goddess.

Multiple alternate sleeves (a favoured ploy of Parton’s country pop heir Taylor Swift to persuade fans to buy multiple copies and guarantee high opening week chart positions) feature artfully airbrushed pictures of the septuagenarian superstar in almost comically outdated poses featuring eye-patches, fast cars and electric guitars. The guest list resembles a big night out at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with collaborators including Elton John, Sting, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, Debbie Harry and members of The Beatles, Judas Priest, Motley Crew, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Duran Duran, REO Speedwagon, Heart and Journey all joining in the fun, mostly on pumped up covers of their own signature hits.

The 30-strong track list resembles one of those overstuffed compilations proclaiming itself The Ultimate Collection of the World’s Best Loved Rock Anthems Ever Ever Ever! Does anyone outside of a TV talent show really need to hear another strenuously mimicked cover of Purple Rain or Let It Be, even if the latter features Ringo Starr on drums, Paul McCartney on piano, Peter Frampton on lead guitar and a trio of overexcited backing vocalists who sound like they are fighting for a solo spot on the microphone?

Nothing about Dolly Parton’s belated land grab for a share of the rock market is exactly subtle. Nevertheless (and perhaps surprisingly) it genuinely comes across as a labour of love, infused with the innate positivity of Parton’s character. This may effectively be overblown karaoke, but Parton absolutely has the vocal chops to sing at full power over crashing guitars and drums. She seems to genuinely relish the opportunity to venture out of her usual intimate country stylings to belt out a brassy (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction with Pink and Brandi Carlisle or take on a glam-rocking I Hate Myself For Loving You with Joan Jett. Such unimaginative song choices, however, betray a lack of genuine affinity for the genre, emphasised by a tendency to turn everything into a kind of Broadway Musical, with performances dialled up to 11.

The strongest moments in this overlong two-and-a-half hour set come closer to her comfort zone, such as a country soul duet with John Fogerty in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Long as I Can See the Light, a sweet Baby I Love Your Way with Peter Frampton and a rootsy Night Moves with fellow country star Chris Stapleton standing in for Bob Seger. A duet with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus on Wrecking Ball is fired up with the affection they obviously hold for each other.

Nine originals interspersed with the overfamiliar classics indicate a songwriter’s fascination with rock form, but only I Want You Back (sung with Steven Tyler) justifies its position nestled between so many inarguable classics. The hard-riffing Bygones features Parton in a screaming match with Rob Halford. Honestly, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Judas Priest album, but it leaves me wondering why it exists, and who is it for? Dolly rocks, but it’s all just role-play.


Rockstar is out now via (Butterfly/Big Machine)