Music

Dolly Parton: 'I'm not an activist. I'm not a feminist. I'm not any of that and yet I'm all of that'

As she launches her new album Rockstar, Dolly Parton tells us about her new musical direction, her most political song to date and her passionate support for increasing literacy

Dolly Parton playing an electric guitar

Dolly Parton. Rockstar. Image: Vijat Mohindra

Dolly Parton is the greatest. For more than half a century she has shared her songwriting genius with the world, while also putting her money where her mouth is when it comes to creating positive change. But having spent her career letting her music and actions do the talking, rather than getting involved in the political fray, her upcoming album Rockstar also contains her most political songwriting to date.

As she launched Rockstar in London this week, Parton revealed another string to her bow. For Parton, this is more than another thrilling musical adventure. Rockstar features nine original rock songs alongside 21 covers, with guest appearances from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Debbie Harry, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, Joan Jett and her old pal Emmylou Harris. No one says no to Dolly. And quite right too.

And having already conquered country, bluegrass and pop music, we can confirm that Dolly also rocks!

“Can you believe I’m a rockstar at 77?” she said.

Her voice fits as well over walls of feedback and widdly-widdly electric guitar solos as it does backed by a traditional bluegrass line-up of guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and fiddle.

But as well as making more noise on this album, Dolly also gets properly political, particularly on new track World On Fire.

“Songs like World On Fire are about the shape the world is in,” said Dolly. “And this is the only world we’ve got. I just want to see us doing a little more learning and trying a bit harder to make lives a little bit better.

“So I felt led to write the song World On Fire. It’s not about anything any more than it’s about everything. It’s not a political statement because I’m not political at all. I try to steer away from that.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLIGxNZeW78

The lyrics tell a slightly different story. “Liar, liar, the world’s on fire,” she sings. And continues: “Greedy politicians, present and past / They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ‘em in the ass / Now tell me what is truth / Have we all lost sight / Of common decency / Of the wrong and right? How do we heal this great divide / Do we care enough to try?”

So why now? Why is Dolly getting political at 77?

Dolly Parton at the launch of her album Rockstar
Dolly Parton at a press conference to launch her upcoming album Rockstar. Image: Adrian Lobb

“I just have feelings about things,” Dolly continued.

“And the way I express my feelings is that I’m able to write songs. And I write them to make people think. Not to make major statements. More to make people just look and feel and think about what we can do to do better.

“I think it’s all crazy, what’s going on in this world. It’s no more about climate change than it is about the great division or that it is about the hate, the greed, the lack of acceptance or the lack of love. The lack of trying is what gets me. We don’t even seem to care – we would rather stick with something established than try to change.

“I don’t march in the street. I don’t carry signs. I’m not an activist, I’m not a feminist, I’m not any of that. And yet I’m all of that. I’m one of those people that wants the best for all of us.

“I want us to believe in something bigger than ourselves. You may not believe in god, but you can believe in a higher wisdom, a higher power, you could call it nature, or whatever you may do. We need to be trying to say: this is the only world we have got.

“I think about other civilisations that have destroyed themselves when they got too big for their own britches. And we’re kind of there now.

“If we don’t start doing something now, we’re not even gonna be here to talk about it. I’m not going to get to sing songs any more. So my songs just talk about everything. I’m concerned about everything.”

There is one big issue Parton is happy to get behind. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has gifted more than 200,000,000 books to children, across the world. This has ensured children from low income families have equal access to the joys of reading. How does she feel about this legacy of literacy alongside the songs, from I Will Always Love You to Coat Of Many Colours, Little Sparrow and Islands In The Stream?

“We all have our causes. And I’ve always believed that once you get in a position to do something, you should do something,” she said.

“I started the Imagination Library 26 or 27 years ago with my dad. My dad couldn’t read and write. And my dad was so smart and so special and so dear to me. And it seemed to bother him. He seemed to think that he couldn’t learn to read after he was grown, because like most people in the mountains, you didn’t get a chance to go to school, because they’re from big families and you’ve got to work to feed them. And the school houses are way off.

“I wanted to do something special for my dad because he had always been so there for us.

“We started the programme from a place in my heart. I was thinking it might just be in our hometown. Maybe a few counties over. But it just caught on. My god! It went all over Tennessee, to different states, into Canada. We’ve now given away 200 million books since we started our programme. And my dad was so proud of me. And I’m so proud that I have that memory to share.”

Dolly Parton: Rockstar is out in November

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