Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Dolly Parton with Ricky Van Shelton, “Rockin’ Years”

“Rockin’ Years”

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.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. A case of two exceptionally interpretive vocalists elevating a slight lyric to something special and sincere.

    This pairing represents how close and live the older generation was in country music yet. Jamie has shared in previous posts how many older acts were still getting spins at radio even as this wave of young, new talent crashed over Nashville.

    These kind of duets are essential connections between the past and the present, not unlike what Randy Travis’ entire “Heroes and Friends” project accomplished. These moment represent a changing of the guard.

    I am infatuated with Ricky Van Shelton and still think he is the cat’s meow of male country singers.

    So good to hear this lovely duet again.

  2. Nice song. I have a 47 song duets playlist on my macbook to which i’ll add Rockin’ Years and maybe find a few more duets since it’s been a while since my last update.

  3. This is a very slight song greatly elevated by two very superior vocalists. While Dolly recorded a lot of material I didn’t like (as well as much material I loved), I never heard a RVS recording I didn’t at least like. I wish he’d record again (assuming that his voice still is in good shape).

  4. She originally recorded this with George Jones and that version is alright, but I much prefer this one. I did think her and George sounded good together on their cover of “The Blues Man” a while later though.

  5. Kevin. Please spill backwards to the 80’s before spilling into the 200’s. I realize the 80’s is a HUGE chart chore, but, much more memorable. Anyways, This song hits seriously close to home as my parents loved it. But, 6 years later my father died of a heart attack at 56. 5 years after that my mother died of cancer at 59. A better thought is my mothers sister and my uncle that also LOVE this song and just celebrated their 60th anniversary. The way things should be.

  6. Yet another lovely song about genuine true love. Like Travis Tritt’s “Drift Off To Dream” and AJ’s “I’d Love You All Over Again,” this is another example of the kind of love song you rarely ever hear anymore. And not only do I miss love songs like this, but I miss hearing duets like this, as well. Dolly’s legendary voice goes great with Ricky’s smooth crooning. Love the timeless classic country arrangement in the song, as well with especially some great steel playing. Oh, and I really like the video too, and the little kids are so adorable!

    Peter mentioning the connections between the past and then present generations of country artists touches upon another thing I’ve always loved about the early 90’s country era. Even though the newer artists were slowly taking over the airwaves, they still had and displayed a great amount of respect for the older generation of artists that came before them, which is something you rarely see anymore in mainstream country. The Heroes And Friends album is a great example, and also Alan’s shout outs to George Jones around this time and a bunch of the then hottest newcomers backing up the Possum on “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” also come to mind. Oh, and that duet Clint Black did with Roy Rogers, as well. Country artists, both new and legendary, and of all ages just seemed like one big happy family back then, and that’s just one more thing that seems to have been sadly lost today.

    Anyway, back to Dolly, as much as I love her contemporary/crossover material from the late 70’s and 80’s, I’m also glad she returned to a traditional sound starting with the White Limozeen album. I especially love that album, along with Eagle When She Flies, Slow Dancing with The Moon, and the Honky Tonk Angels collaboration with Tammy and Loretta. As for RVS, like Peter, he could rarely do any wrong to my ears especially during this era. It sure would be nice, if he could at least do one more album if not tour (I recall him mentioning in a recent interview that he didn’t think he could tour now because he lost some of his hearing in one ear).

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