Dolly Parton with Ricky Van Shelton
Written by Floyd Parton
#1 (1 week)
May 4, 1991
Radio & Records
#1 (1 week)
April 26, 1991
A legend and a superstar collaborate for a winning duet.
The Road to No. 1
Ricky Van Shelton and Dolly Parton were labelmates when they collaborated on “Rockin’ Years.” For Shelton, all of his chart hits had been recorded for the Columbia label. Dolly Parton, on the other hand, had been recording since the sixties, and had her first hits on Monument Records. The vast majority of her hits had been for RCA Records, followed by the Trio hits with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on Warner Bros. Her first Columbia album, 1987’s Rainbow, was a pop-flavored project that made little impact at country radio. But she scored two No. 1 hits with the country-flavored White Limozeen in 1989: “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” and “Yellow Roses.”
“Rockin’ Years” served as a dual lead single for the labelmates, previewing Parton’s Eagle When She Flies and Shelton’s Backroads.
The No. 1
“Rockin’ Years” is penned by Parton’s brother, Floyd, and it’s one of those lightning in a bottle moments of greatness, where the perfect song comes together with a timeless production and two vocalists at the top of their game.
By 1991, most country and pop fans would think of Kenny Rogers as the male duet partner for Dolly Parton, but this collaboration with Ricky Van Shelton is a callback to the sound and style of her sixties and seventies duets with Porter Wagoner. Even though it was Parton who’d been recording hits since the sixties, Shelton’s the one who harkens back to those glory days with his rich baritone and traditional style. Truth be told, Shelton at his peak was a better singer than Wagoner ever was, so “Rockin’ Years” sounds like the Platonic ideal of a Porter & Dolly duet, even without Porter being part of the proceedings.
Much like when Patty Loveless recorded with George Jones later in the decade, Ricky Van Shelton is able to go toe to toe with one of the finest artists in country music history, and not only hold his own, but matches the performance of the greatest female artist in the history of country music.
It’s a timeless love song as good as anything else that was on the radio in the golden era of the early nineties.
The Road From No. 1
Backroads would produce three more No. 1 hits for Shelton, but this would be the last major chart hit for Parton for many years, despite continued collaborations with the biggest names in nineties country. Radio moved on well before the audiences did, however, as Eagle When She Flies and Slow Dancing With the Moon became her second and third studio albums to go platinum, and her collaboration with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Honky Tonk Angels, went gold.
Her songwriting notoriety reached a dizzyingly high peak when Whitney Houston immortalized “I Will Always Love You” in 1992, which is still the best-selling record in history by a female artist, with over 20 million copies sold worldwide. By the end of the decade, Parton was the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and her return to her roots with The Grass is Blue had revived her career. If this feature ever spills over to the 2000s, we will cover Parton’s return to the top with Brad Paisley.
“Rockin’ Years” gets an A.