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Why Dolly Parton was right to turn down the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

At this point, the country music icon's personal standards may be higher than the Hall of Fame’s.
Image: Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton during her "Pure & Simple Tour" at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, in December 2016.Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP via Getty Images file

Dolly Parton is many things. She’s a country music legend, a prolific songwriter, a clever entrepreneur, a generous philanthropist, a sensitive humanitarian, a subtle feminist, a devout Christian and, in her own way, a rebel. She is not, however, a rocker and does not belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

If that sounds controversial, take it up with Dolly.

“Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t feel that I have earned that right. I really do not want votes to be split because of me, so I must respectfully bow out,” she tweeted Monday morning, sending the Twitterverse into rapid response mode.

The decision to withdraw her nomination was widely supported by fans, admirers and members of the rock community, who praised Parton’s integrity. And it was most likely a relief for those she was up against. The other 2022 nominees are Duran Duran, Eminem, Eurythmics, Judas Priest, Rage Against the Machine, Kate Bush, Pat Benatar, New York Dolls, A Tribe Called Quest, Lionel Ritchie, Beck, Fela Kuti, MC5, DEVO, Carly Simon and Dionne Warwick.

Around five to seven performers are inducted every year. The votes won’t be tallied until May, but Parton was already sitting in fourth position on the fan vote leaderboard; the top five fan-voted acts get points toward their grand totals.

And, of course, plenty of fans argued that she already embodies the essence of rock ’n’ roll.

To be frank, Parton’s standards may be higher than the Hall of Fame’s. At this point, the institution might better be named the Popular Music Hall of Fame. It has inducted numerous singer-songwriters, soul acts, blues players, funk bands, rappers and, yes, country performers, including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Brenda Lee, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe. The difference here is that none of these country artists expressed a desire to be excluded.

If rock is narrowly defined, arguably many of these musicians shouldn’t share museum space with the more conventional choices, such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana. Since 2014, the year KISS was inducted, band co-founder Gene Simmons has repeatedly argued that voters take perplexing liberties when they choose who will appear on the ballot.

“You’ve got Grandmaster Flash in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?” Simmons told “Run-DMC in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? You’re killing me. That doesn’t mean those aren’t good artists. But they don’t play guitar. They sample and they talk. Not even sing.”

Two years later, N.W.A rapper Ice Cube pushed back when his group became the fifth hip-hop group to join the exclusive club. “Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before but creating your own path in life. That is rock ’n’ roll and that is us. ... Rock ’n’ roll is N.W.A,” he said in the group’s acceptance speech.

There’s a difference between simply having a nonconformist attitude and fitting into the rock ’n’ roll music style.

There’s a difference between simply having a nonconformist attitude and fitting into the rock ’n’ roll music style, which surfaced in the 1950s from swing, gospel, R&B and the electric blues. Country music played a role in that evolution, of course, and Parton’s songs have influenced countless pop stars, including Miley Cyrus (Dolly’s goddaughter), Taylor Swift, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé, the latter two of whom covered “I Will Always Love You.” But when country music doesn’t also feature elements of R&B and guitars rooted in the blues, defining it as rock can feel like a musicological stretch.

One of the first to play what he called rock ’n’ roll was 1950s Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, who said: “Rock ’n’ roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs and features blues and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that gets to the kids — they’re starved of music they can dance to, after all those years of crooners.”

Having nominated rap artists, electronic acts and country musicians, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame seems to be more interested in inducting talented artists from the entire popular music spectrum than it is in adhering to a particular standard or style. But Parton, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, seems to feel differently about the criteria.

In early February, she foreshadowed her Rock Hall pullout when she told Billboard that being nominated took her completely by surprise. “I was absolutely floored when I heard that,” she said. “I’ve never thought of myself as being rock and roll in any sense of the word.” Which doesn’t mean she won’t in the future. Her official statement said: "I do hope that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will understand and be willing to consider me again — if I'm ever worthy. This has, however, inspired me to put out a hopefully great rock ’n’ roll album at some point in the future, which I have always wanted to do!" Interestingly, Parton turned down a request from Elvis Presley to cover her 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You.” (The King wanted half the publishing fee for the track.)

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame isn’t the first major institution Parton has graciously sidestepped. She has turned down an invitation to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, rejected two invitations to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declined an invitation to guest on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and passed on a request from her home state, Tennessee, to erect a statue of her while the country was battling the Covid epidemic.

All of which is to say nobody is harder on Dolly Parton than Dolly Parton. May we all set our own personal standards that high — and be as gracious when we miss them as when we meet them.