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How Dolly Parton’s ‘Rockstar’ Became Her Biggest Debut Yet, From Dallas Cowboys to Dollar General

"We're not afraid to take chances because Dolly doesn't go on everyone's highway, she creates her own path," says Parton's manager Danny Nozell.

Since Danny Nozell started managing Dolly Parton in 2005, her already legendary career has soared to new heights. But even Nozell, CEO of CTK Enterprises, couldn’t have predicted that Parton would be inducted into the 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and, one year later, that her 30-track set, Rockstar — inspired by the honor — would become the highest-charting album of her nearly 60-year career.

Parton is joined by such artists as Elton John on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on “Let It Be,” and John Fogerty on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” among others, on the Nov. 17 release, which also contains six originals. Rockstar debuted at a career-high No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200, surpassing Parton’s previous high of No. 6 for 2014’s Blue Smoke. With 128,000 equivalent album units, Rockstar also blasted in at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums, Top Rock & Alternative Albums, Top Rock Albums and Top Album Sales charts.

Parton recorded much of the album in secret, not even telling Nozell. “[She] did not tell me until she had finished it and called myself and my staff in to listen to the album,” he says. “I said, ‘What album?’ She said, ‘The rock album.’ She didn’t want to tell me because she was afraid I would start cutting deals before it was done. She knows me well.” 

The high numbers are a result of Parton’s inimitable talent, but also, to Nozell’s point, a global marketing plan that began rolling out months before the album’s release and included debuting the first single, “World On Fire,” on the Academy of Country Music Awards, which she hosted with Garth Brooks. The voluminous marketing efforts also included making a music video for Queen‘s “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You” that tied in with NBC’s promotion of the 2024 Olympics, a London press junket with journalists from all over the world, a SiriusXM interview with Howard Stern, an HSN merchandise drop and a slot on Robin Roberts’ ABC special. The promotional slate was an endurance marathon that the 77-year-old Parton ran like a gold medalist, and devising and executing it helps earn Nozell the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week. 

Here, Nozell talks about the different facets of the campaign and how, even after almost 20 years together, Parton still managed to surprise him in a major way. 

There were literally dozens of promotional efforts for Rockstar. Was there one single campaign or interview that you felt pushed the album over the edge?

[No.] It was the long setup time, the combination of the entire global marketing plan and the way we executed it like a military operation. We researched everything, we planned everything and we strategized everything. When we felt like we had the right game plan, we executed and followed through. We have been following this protocol for two decades and it has always served us well. There’s no “I” in team. We manifest our own success and my team — CTK Enterprises/Butterfly Records — deserves all the recognition in the world. Kyle McClainSteve RossJohn ZarlingKelly RidgwayOlly RowlandMarcel Pariseau and my entire staff, as well as Big Machine’s Scott BorchettaMike Rittberg and everyone at [the label] deserve enormous credit. Dolly delivered an incredible album that will go down in history as one of her greatest.

Rockstar tops Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart and, at 118,500 physical copies sold, she more than double her previous biggest week 30 years ago with 50,000 for Slow Dancing With the Moon. You did four different CD configurations and 10 vinyl variants. Like Taylor Swift, does she have fans who will collect every version?

Our original goal was to be in the top five of the Billboard 200 and to do 70,000 in the first week. We definitely crushed that. Dolly’s fans are extremely loyal and I’ve gotten to know many of them over the years. They definitely like to collect every single version of the vinyls, CDs and even cassette tapes. In true Dolly form, we defied the norm of the current marketplace and sold a lot of physical product. While we were still focused on streaming, we wanted to give Dolly’s fans and consumers a memorable product that you could see, feel and read, just like I, and many fans, grew up doing. With streaming, you leave out a lot of the artistic element of the product.

You also went into non-traditional retailers, including Cracker Barrel, Dollar General and HSN. Were any of those new for Dolly and how important is it for you to meet Dolly’s audiences where they are, which might not be the traditional music outlets?

Being that we’ve had so much success with Cracker Barrel and HSN [before], but had not tested out Dollar General, we decided to take a chance and [have] Dollar General be an official retailer for chart-eligible sales. I was also the one who did the same for Cracker Barrel when Dolly did her first project with them years ago. This was one of the deal points I made sure was included. We’re not afraid to take chances because Dolly doesn’t go on everyone’s highway, she creates her own path. We wanted to stick to that mentality. We made sure that wherever there was a Dolly fan, we needed to reach them. 

The vast majority of her consumption came from sales as opposed to streaming. Were there efforts to up her streaming numbers from the past or was the plan to focus on album sales, given her older audience demographic? 

We met with the DSPs early on and played them the entire album. They were just as blown away as we were and wanted to partner. We gave them exclusive content and time with Dolly. 

We thought that out of the starting gates we should go for Dolly’s core fan base and deliver them a high-quality product. This is why we offered 10 different vinyl variants and did expensive photoshoots, with top pop photographers like Vijat Mohindra, who Miley Cyrus introduced to Dolly. (Parton is Cyrus’s godmother.) Dolly’s never been a huge streaming artist but we have continually increased her footprint year over year. 

Dolly sang “Rocky Top” at the University of Tennessee’s football game the day after Rockstar’s release and then performed during halftime at the Dallas Cowboys’ game on Thanksgiving. You even created special CD packages for each team. How did those appearances bring in a different Dolly audience? 

During the week of release, we wanted to create a marketing explosion. At the University of Tennessee, Dolly performed in front of 100,000 people and over 6 million TV viewers. Then the Dallas Cowboys on CBS had over 44 million TV viewers and 100,000 people live at the sold-out stadium. We could not have asked for a bigger look for the week of release. I can’t even put a price on this exposure. 

However, there were a couple of caveats that I didn’t expect. The first was Dolly’s huge heart and generosity when she donated $1 million to the Red Kettle campaign with the Salvation Army, [which kicked off at the Cowboys’ halftime]. The second being that Dolly didn’t tell or show anyone that she was going to dress as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader until it was time to go to the stage. When she came out of the dressing room, myself, the security, and my staff fainted. I couldn’t tell the difference between Dolly and the cheerleaders. That is the genius of Dolly and people are still talking about it. 

Rockstar is her highest-charting album ever on the Billboard 200. How do you top this?

Even though we’re really proud of everything, we still fell short of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 and we have our sights set on this goalpost for the future. We are highly competitive and just want to win for Dolly. She deserves the very best, always. We feel that this global push has raised Dolly’s profile and gained her a lot of new fans. She gained 500,000 new followers on social media in the past seven days alone. We’re excited for the future. 

Dolly’s work ethic is second to none. What could younger artists learn from her?

Dolly’s 77 and I’ve been chasing her for the last 20 years. She has no plans of slowing down. A younger artist could definitely look at her work ethic and see that the hard work pays off. They can also look at her huge heart: the more you give, the more you receive, and that’s worked really well for Dolly. Also, she doesn’t judge anyone. She tries to find positivity in everybody. They can also learn that dreams really do come true. Dolly keeps on dreaming and we have to help her execute them.

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