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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Zen of Recording

Oh Hey, Whoa Dolly!

by Sven-Erik SeaholmDecember 2023

One word: Wow.

Not in the best way.

Yeah, I know that I’m “the recording guy” columnist and others write the reviews, but in this case let’s (ahem) review: The San Diego Troubadour is, by its own definition an alternative country, Americana, roots, folk, blues, gospel, jazz, and bluegrass music news magazine.

In 2022, Dolly Parton was selected for induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

At first, she balked at accepting the honor, but after an outpouring of encouragement from the scores of friends in the industry who feature largely on her new album, she relented.

In her acceptance speech, she said, “You know, if I’m gonna be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, I’m gonna have to do a rock album” and true to her word, Ms. Parton has delivered on that and so, so much more, with the sprawling Rockstar, a big-time, pull-out-all-the-stops modern rock production, with A-listers on both sides of the studio glass.

As one who deeply loves Dolly Parton’s songs and voice, I took notice. I think that within the realm of that sort of greatness, you have to pay attention when a “Babe Ruth” points into the stands. That, of course, often comes with unrealistic expectations but here, everything just feels way more…unedited.

I mean there are 30 songs on this album and the last one is Free Bird.

Granted, there’s a lot of love in the room the whole time, and an infectious personality like Dolly’s is going to bring out the affection that each and every performer so obviously holds for her. But the perky shout-outs, schmoozy dialogue, and often lackluster cameos begin to tip the scales too far to the meta, even for the still-adorable Dolly Parton, periodically causing me to wonder aloud if the cameos were too much, at least over the course of 30 songs, hence the playlist.

I believe Dolly Parton to be a very grateful and generous person. The world needs all of these angels. That said, I will chronicle the sifting through that brought me to the Dolly Parton Rockstar playlist I curated to enjoy and share with you. Here we go!

  1. Rock Star It starts off a hilarious skit about Dolly as a little girl, declaring her sincere intentions to rock!Over a smoldering 8th-note march of muted heavy guitars and kick drum-anchored downbeats, she delivers a convincingly badass rock vocal performance, as talk boxes squawk and whammy bars bend and hoodly-hoodly guitar leads abound. Love the backing vocals on this one! [Y]
  2. World on Fire Sounds to me like the promise of what a Daniel Lanois-produced collaboration might sound like. At times, this fine song brings to mind the Emmylou Harris album he produced, Wrecking Ball, but Dolly brings it harder. Above a majestic din of drums, guitars, and gospel choirs, she implores of a divided country: “Can’t we rise above? / Can’t we show some love / Do we just give up, or make a change?” She means it and her impassioned delivery is beyond convincing, its transcendent. [Y]
  3. Every Breath You Take Although this song has some really tight production elements, it was the first one I had some trouble with. It’s not an unsuccessful duet, but I really don’t like Sting’s re-harmonized arrangement.
  4. Open Arms Dolly’s opening verse and chorus to this well-worn chestnut are quintessentially her. I hit skip when Steve Perry enters…he also re-harmonized the arrangement with mixed results.
  5. Magic Man Note perfect performances from both Parton and Heart’s Ann Wilson keep things lively and it sounds like one would hope! Love the big acoustic guitar-picked breakdown, too!
  6. Long as I Can See the Light This is way better than expected! John Fogerty’s vocals sound like sun tea on summer’s day, and the two together sound like weary travelers. Just lovely.
  7. Either Or Guest Kid Rock brings on the slide guitars and a vocal mix that buries Dolly’s.
  8. I Want You Back Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler is probably better at this sort of project than most other artists, having done so many. His turn is iconic and injects real energy into this well-produced track.
  9. What Has Rock ‘n’ Roll Ever Done for You I don’t know who the dude is, but no.
  10. Purple Rain Great, but inessential.
  11. Baby, I Love Your Way Same as above, except without the “great” part. Frampton plays a cool solo.
  12. I Hate Myself for Loving You I’d say this was the prototype I pictured this album to be. Rocks!
  13. Night Moves Dolly really seems to lean into this one, providing an electric crackle to the track. Chris Stapleton stands in admirably for songwriter Bob Seger, to beautiful dramatic effect.
  14. Wrecking Ball This is hands-down a great reinvention of the original in collaboration with Miley Cyrus herself. That is a vision somewhat lacking throughout the rest of this project. Powered by their combined talents this absolutely kills.
  15. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction Playfully deconstructs the patented guitar interplay of the Stones at the intro, then hitters Pink and Brandi Carlisle move in the throw-down serious girl power, something this album could use more of. Super love the jet flanger-fueled psychedelic bridge!
  16. Keep on Loving You Not after this version, Kevin Cronin.
  17. Heart of Glass Nope.
  18. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me I was so ready to love this, then Elton John started singing. Infuriatingly bad.
  19. Tried to Rock ‘n’ Roll Me This song sounds like it was written for Dolly to sing in this genre! Great find. Melissa Etheridge keeps things real throughout. Winner!
  20. Stairway to Heaven Okay…why in the hell are we doing this, again? So Lizzo can sound less cool than a Mellotron? Not at all worth one’s time, in my opinion.
  21. We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You Skip.
  22. Bygones I love the idea of having Dolly Parton duet with Judas Preist’s Rob Halford, and it actually is quite thrilling! Gold.
  23. My Blue Tears The script is flipped on Duran Duran’s vocalist Simon Le Bon, who turns in a surprising vocal on Parton’s classic. One of the album’s better cuts!
  24. What’s Up? This Four No Blondes classic with Linda Perry is probably why I’ve been hearing the phrase “Dollyoke” bandied about. I mean, some of these choices were obviously going to rub some folks the wrong way and this seems like almost certain doom, but Linda Perry is also a great producer and stayed out of the way on this one, letting Dolly shine like the star she is.
  25. You’re No Good. Surprisingly terrible vocals from Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris.
  26. Heartbreaker “Dollyoke” with Pat Benetar!
  27. Bittersweet Not sure how rocking a choice Michael McDonald is, but there is a definite ’80s slant to the song choices and arrangements throughout.
  28. I Dreamed About Elvis Style-check is the king with a hammy impersonation by Ronnie McDowell and is every bit as corny as you’d think.
  29. Let It Be sounds like Paul McCartney grabbed his Les Paul guitar for some great soloing and Ringo Starr steals the show with his instantly identifiable drumming! What a rare chance to hear them together!
  30. Free Bird Told you! Dolly leads the way with an affectingly personal performance and opens an absolutely scorching outro into a rocking guitarfest!!

Well, there was certainly a lot of work that went into Rockstar. I hope the edited playlist here——helps you to enjoy the album to its fullest. Merry Christmas!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter, and record producer from San Diego, California.

Join him at the Whistle Stop Bar on December 17th from 5-8pm as he and Ed Croft Guest DJ and celebrate the release of Croft’s Seaholm-produced Vinyl LP, Have Mersey.

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