Look, if you’ve landed on a site called “Saving Country Music,” the kind of reverence the name “Dolly Parton” evokes around these parts shouldn’t even need to be stated, so I’ll spare you the litany of qualifying plaudits and hyperlinks to the reams of positive coverage she’s received here over the years. Dolly Parton is unquestionably one of the greatest country music artists of all time, and one of the greatest music artists of all time, period. And in some departments like songwriting and universal likability, Dolly Parton has no peer.
But Dolly Parton doesn’t deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at least not at the moment when there are so many other women and men waiting in the wings that are much more deserving, and could use the distinction to preserve a legacy that Dolly Parton already has secured for herself by many fold. And asserting that Dolly Parton should be in the Rock Hall—and especially that it’s some sort of egregious offense or oversight to her legacy that she isn’t already—is just flat out ridiculous and wrong-minded.
It seems weird this is even a matter we’re being forced to discuss, but in the wake of the release of the names of the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees earlier this week, there’s been ample discussion about the lack of women, and somehow, Dolly Parton’s name has been put at the very top of the heap of the Rock Hall’s gross oversights. “No, Dolly Parton hasn’t been inducted,” starts a tweet from NPR, linking to an article where Dolly and 40 other women are presented as worthy candidates with a picture of Dolly as the headline image—like it’s a given that Dolly’s exclusion is incredulous and shocking as opposed to just a simple matter of genre.
The NPR article goes on to also list Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker, and the Dixie Chicks as other artists who deserve Rock Hall induction, while somehow not mentioning rock bands like The Go’s Go’s and The Bangles who were a big part in breaking down gender barriers in rock as some of the first all-women bands that went onto be wildly successful, yet are still not in. An article in Billboard also mentions Dolly Parton in their Top 10 of women who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Now granted, it’s not unprecedented that a country performer would end up enshrined in Cleveland. Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers are, but both were bluesmen who were inducted as “early influence” artists, and deservedly so. Johnny Cash is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but seeing how his career started during the Sun Studios era right beside Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was considered just as much rockabilly as country by many early in his career, not to mention Cash’s late career resurgence that happened just as much through rock channels as country, he was an easy pick.
And it’s not that the women of country have been excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entirely. Wanda Jackson is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and is known just as much from her long career in country and rockabilly just as much as rock and roll. Brenda Lee is also in the Rock Hall, along with the Country Music Hall of Fame. These would be the kind of performers who crossed genres that country fans should root for being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And it’s not that there aren’t some rock and rollers in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Elvis is in there, as are The Everly Brothers. But again, these are artists whose careers cut right across the influences of country, rock, and gospel, and put enough effort and influence into both to attain the dual induction.
And it’s not even that there isn’t a scenario where Dolly Parton couldn’t or shouldn’t be placed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the future. But that should be a future where the amount of rock and roll talent to induct is so tapped, you’re just looking for exciting names to put forward. That is certainly not the scenario we find ourselves in right now. As long as artists like Pat Benetar and The Go Go’s whose influence on rock was clear and present are still waiting their turn, we shouldn’t even be talking about Dolly Parton or any country artists getting in.
The line to get into these Halls of Fame is single file, even when it comes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which feels extremely more open with the five to seven inductees each year, compared to the Country Hall’s three per year. As a country music fan, I don’t want country artists overshadowing or cutting in line in front of important rock and roll talent for that distinction. Rock fans and performers are our brothers and sisters, and we should respect their space and institutions instead of trying to impinge on them for our own purposes, or act like they’re being insulting or not inclusive by not letting someone like Dolly Parton or any other patently country performer in.
And yes, I get that Dolly Parton had her period of pop, which is probably one of the only slight qualifying points of why you could see Parton getting a Rock Hall nomination in the future, especially after they’ve put in performers like Madonna and Whitney Houston. But as country fans and advocates, let’s be more respectful of rock’s institutions. There is no big, established pop or hip-hop Hall of Fame like country has. We have our strong and vibrant institutions, and just as much as we wouldn’t want outside voices assuaging us to let pop or rock artists in under the misguided notions of inclusiveness, we shouldn’t use our voices to act like we are being excluded if country’s superstars don’t make it among the rockers.
And this brings up the next concern for saying that Dolly Parton or other country artists (women or otherwise) should be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or even worse, that it’s an offense they aren’t already in there. As Billboard says in their opinion of why Dolly should be in, “The lack of Rock Hall attention given to Dolly Parton has been extended to any number of the great ladies of country—Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris—and a number of the men, too.”
See, that’s when you start traveling down a slippery slope. If Dolly gets in, then how can you justify Willie Nelson not being in? Or how about Merle Haggard, since he so heavily influenced the California rockers of the 60’s and 70’s. And speaking of that, why not Buck Owens who built one of the important foundations for country rock? And if we’re measuring the overall cultural impact of a performer, you would have to put Garth Brooks in. He’s sold more music than even Elvis. And if you really want to talk about what defines rock, a lot of modern country artists fit the profile exactly. Jason Aldean may be one of the most pure rockers in mainstream entertainment at the moment. Do we put him in when he’s eligible in a few years?
Now you see how out-of-hand this thing can get, and very quickly, where you could have country stars outright dominating future Hall of Fame classes. This is what happened when the Rock Hall started putting in people that had no business being in there previously, like pop and hip-hop stars. How could you have Madonna in there and not Whitney Houston? How did you induct Tupac and leave out Notorious B.I.G.? Then you have to induct these artists to calm your critics, and meanwhile women like Pat Benetar, and incredibly important bands like Motörhead are on the outside looking into an institution they should have been inducted into years ago. Attempting to be “inclusive” commonly comes with the exclusion of others, and sometimes the more qualified. Country artists should not be a party to those offenses, especially since they have their own strong and vibrant Hall of Fame to seek induction into.
It’s past time hip-hop had their own standalone Hall of Fame that had just as much clout as the Rock and Country counterparts. Pop could have one too, but it’s always been a closer cousin to rock, so how those two institutions interact is a more involved discussion. But overall, we have to stop acting like every institution is being exclusionary simply based off of optics. Ultimately, music is still a meritocracy, and should remain so where the best, brightest, most important and influential are highlighted to inspire us all and goad everyone towards achieving their personal goals. And in the case of Halls of Fame, merit isn’t just about what you did, but how you did it based off of style and influence. Brett Favre was an astounding football player. But that doesn’t mean he deserves to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dolly Parton is country, and whether the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes her or not, her legacy is cemented in American and world culture for eternity, as are the contributions of many other artists who may or may not get their name or likeness installed in some sacred music institution at some point. It’s fun to discuss how these decisions should and shouldn’t go, and of course everyone’s opinion varies, and we should all make sure the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Grammy Awards, The Oscars, and all these other institutions judge artists based off their merit, and any and all vestiges of sexism or racism are torn down to make sure they don’t impinge anyone’s chances.
But in this case, putting Dolly Parton or other country women into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wouldn’t be beneficial to women or country. It would be exclusionary to the women and men of rock, who deserve that distinction more than country artists do.