state of the arts

Was Dolly Parton’s humble Hall of Fame snub a dig at its misogynist past?

The country music superstar has just turned down a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination. Leonie Cooper asks if there’s more to it than just genres

<p>Dolly Parton performing last week at the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards, just days before turning down her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination</p>

Dolly Parton performing last week at the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards, just days before turning down her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination

There’s a reason why Dolly Parton’s wonderful face graces not just her own album covers (an impressive 52 so far), but kitschy prayer candles, cutesy greetings cards and a whole array of delightfully jazzy, extremely unofficial DIY merch. With a career spanning seven decades, Dolly isn’t simply a fiercely important musical artist, but a force for powerful cultural change. From changing the way women are seen at the business end of country music to providing millions of free books for underprivileged children via her Imagination Library project, helping fund vital Covid vaccine research and forking out tuition fees for workers at her Dollywood theme park, with each year that passes, Dolly finds it impossible not to do good. A millionaire she might be, but she uses a fair whack of her staggering wealth to help rather than harm.

Dolly’s latest much-talked-about gesture doesn’t necessarily involve cash, but rather clout. This week Tennessee’s finest turned down her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, leaving her fellow Class of 2022 nominees – Eminem, Lionel Richie, Duran Duran, Beck, Pat Benatar, Carly Simon, A Tribe Called Quest, Kate Bush, Devo, Fela Kuti, MC5 and Judas Priest among them – to fight it out for five final places in the hallowed halls.

“Even though I am extremely flattered to be nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t feel that I have earned that right,” she wrote in a friendly statement. Dolly is always friendly. “I really do not want the votes split because of me, so I must respectfully bow out… I do hope that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will understand and be willing to consider me again – if I’m ever worthy.” A “no worries if not!” missive of the highest degree, we can think of one good reason why Dolly could – and possibly should – have accepted the nomination. Despite her protestations, surely it would have been an easy win for Dolly, going somewhere to make up for the fact that there are still nowhere near enough female artists in this boys’ club. Currently, less than 8 per cent of inductees are women. Yet for all its faults, this famously blokey space is seemingly making efforts to diversify, broadening its remit from dudes with guitars and suspicious rider requests. And while the banjo-loving Dolly isn’t quite Joan Jett, when it comes to genre, hip-hop, pop and soul have long been included within the Hall of Fame’s remit. Rock’n’roll, after all, is surely a state of mind.

But perhaps we’re missing the point. Could Dolly’s swerve be a kindly dig at the institution’s misogynistic past? Though the Hall of Fame started inducting influential artists in 1986 – kicking off with Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley – it wasn’t until the following year that the first woman was nominated, with Aretha Franklin smuggled in on a list bulging with 14 men. A smattering more were allowed past the gates over the following few decades, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell among them, but never more than one every year, lest, we imagine, the Hall of Fame itself ended up having to install a tampon machine or something else equally outrageous.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by those it intends to flatter, either. "Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, please: 2020, induct more women," urged Janet Jackson in 2019. Stevie Nicks later discussed her status as the first woman to be inducted twice, after 22 men received the double honour first. “I definitely broke a big rock’n’roll glass ceiling,” she commented. Tina Turner followed in 2021, after first being inducted in 1991 as a duo alongside her abusive ex-husband as Ike and Tina. Neither attended the ceremony and the equally problematic Phil Spector accepted the award on their behalf.

Dolly, in her own, smilingly Southern “bless your heart” way, may have just been casually doing her bit for artists like the oft-overlooked gospel guitar player Sister Rosetta Tharpe – one of the true founders of rock’n’roll, and a pivotal influence on inaugural inductee Chuck Berry – who wasn’t inducted herself until 2018, 45 years after her death and 32 after Berry. Other notable misses include Salt-N-Pepa, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sheryl Crow, Björk, Cher, Chaka Khan, Sade, Patsy Cline, Hole and Dolly’s fellow country icon Loretta Lynn – all of whom are well past the criteria needed to be nominated; 25 years since the release of an artist’s debut album.

Parton said she had to ‘respectfully bow out’ of the museum’s induction process

It’s not over for Dolly though. After making her point, she noted that the nomination had “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!” Already a master of multiple genres, from bluegrass to disco, Dolly has in fact previously covered one of rock’s biggest anthems – her 2002 version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” flutters with greatness – but now she might finally write her own. This announcement has got more than one old rocker excited. Evidently keen to add Dolly to PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop in his little black book, legendary punk engineer Steve Albini asked over Twitter: “Dolly Parton do you like analog recording”? Will the next Dolly Parton album see her embracing her inner grunge icon and a bare-bones production technique? I kind of hope it does.

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