The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Dolly Parton Pickle: Should She Be Inducted Anyway, Even If She Doesn’t Want It?

It's unclear whether the Hall could even remove her from the ballot, with voting already underway. Some are hoping she'd reverse course if she still prevails in the balloting.

Could Dolly Parton Be Inducted Into the Rock Hall of Fame Anyway?
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

When Dolly Parton announced Monday that she “must respectfully bow out” of her nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, many in the public and media assumed that her wish was the Hall’s command, and that her name would be removed from contention. But as of a day later, the matter seems far from settled, and it could still turn out that she gets voted in, regardless of whether she feels she’s “worthy” of the honor.

Complicating the matter is the fact that voting is already well underway, with many of the thousand-plus ballots that were sent out to artists and the music industry already having been checked off for Parton, who was considered close to a shoo-in for induction. Voting (by snail mail only) for the 2022 crop doesn’t close for another six weeks — on April 29 — but even among those who’ve waited and are still mulling it over, it’s certainly possible that many will go with Parton anyway, as long as her name isn’t officially taken off the ballot.

Whether the Rock Hall would accede to her wishes and officially disqualify her mid-vote remains an open and intriguing question. So far, there appears not to be any immediate inclination to officially remove her from balloting that’s already in progress, since either honoring or ignoring her stated desire to be taken out of contention would be fraught with separate problems. (Another issue: some voters report not having received the ballot yet, as of press time.)

The hope is “for a Tom Brady” and that “she changes her mind,” says an insider, who notes the likelihood of Parton being a top vote draw either way.

It stands to reason that, if Parton prevailed in the voting, the Hall would consider going ahead and inducting her but handling it on the show in the low-key way they did Todd Rundgren’s induction last year. When Rundgren — who had long made it clear that he had little regard for the Hall — made it clear that he wouldn’t be showing up in Cleveland to accept the honor, the org and HBO minimized the time afforded to him on the telecast, putting up a short historical montage but stopping short of having anyone perform his material on the show.

The change of heart on Parton’s part seemed to be an abrupt one, as the artist had just told Variety, in an interview conducted March 3 and published March 7, that she would be “honored” to be inducted, even though she wasn’t sure she fit under the rock ‘n’ roll banner.

A rep for the Rock Hall said there was no comment from the organization at this time, and a Parton spokesperson indicated Parton and her camp would not be commenting further beyond her initial social media statement.

The Hall’s position is complicated by the fact that Parton’s demurral is historic in its timing and extremeness. While Rundgren may have said he didn’t care about getting in, he also expressed that he understood it created some happiness for the fans who had been lobbying for him to get in for decades. Many others preceded him in making a statement by declining to show up, like John Lydon/Rotten, who called the Hall a farce for years before his group was voted in. But historically, no major artists under consideration have outrightly declared they wanted their nominations rescinded.

If it were a less universally beloved performer asking to opt out, the request might be easier to overlook and just declare that the vote is what it is. But being seen as telling a Dolly Parton that her opinion on her induction doesn’t count could create a backlash for the Hall. Going the other way, though, and giving Parton her way could be seen as setting up a dangerous precedent in which the Rundgrens, Lydons and future rebellious victors all start saying they’re turning down their inductions, too, putting the Hall in the precarious position of having precedent to yank their nominations or wins as well.

Is a compromise possible that would respect where Parton is coming from in wanting to decline the honor — if she does not, indeed, do a Tom Brady reversal — but also respect the will of the voters, if she winds up in the front ranks, as expected?

It’s not difficult to conceive of one, although there are no indications yet that the Hall has proceeded in considering fresh alternatives yet. One option could be to declare that she won but not officially induct her, and say the award will be waiting for her if she changes her mind, essentially making her an asterisk in the Rock Hall pantheon. But the powers-that-be behind the Hall surely aren’t eager to force that creative a solution if there’s any easier way for it to be resolved.

Parton said she was making the request in part because she didn’t want to split votes among other contenders, but it’s not clear that, if the Hall did bump her, someone else would move up in her stead, because the number of inductees getting in varies from year to year anyway.

Complicating how the Hall proceeds is the fact that Parton was gentle and not angry In her disavowal statement, even saying she was leaving the door open for future consideration, after she gets around to making a record she considers rock ‘n’ roll. It could become surreal if the country icon turned it down this year and then cut some rock sides so she could feel justified in being nominated again, even though that seemed to be what she was suggesting in Monday’s statement.

“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,” Parton wrote. “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. This has, however, 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! My husband is a total rock ‘n’ roll freak, and has always encouraged me to do one.”

In her interview less than two weeks ago with Variety, Parton had said, “I was so surprised that that I was even nominated to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I never thought about that, but they say they judge that on a whole lot of things. I’m not expecting to win. But it was a great honor to be nominated. But it did make me think I’ve got to do a good rock ‘n’ roll album — I’ve always thought about it, a good rock album — after next year, when I get some of these things behind m. I’ve always wanted to do a great rock album, like a great Linda Ronstadt-type rock, just to do some things. But I don’t know. I’m not expecting to win, but if I should, I would be very honored and… I’ll just see.”

There’s not much direct precedent to help predict how this might pan out. Unusual as it might be for entertainers to conduct an anti-award campaign, there have been a few famous refusers over the years.

In the music world, in 2020, after winning the CMA Awards’ entertainer of the year prize for a seventh time, Garth Brooks declared that he wanted to be grandfathered out of consideration, since he felt his wins were blocking younger nominees from getting their due. The Country Music Association made it clear at the time that ultimately it wasn’t up to him, issuing a statement: “If voters have nominated Garth Brooks in the first round, his name will appear on the second ballot. It will then be up to voters in this second round to select their top finalists.” But making that declaration between ballots, and not mid-vote, seemed to do the trick in getting CMA voters to leave him out.

Three Oscar winners have refused their honors, at least initially, but their wins were certified and stayed on the books regardless of their wishes. Marlon Brando and George C. Scott were famously both recognized as best actor winners in the early 1970s despite their anger with the system.

Scott, calling the Academy Awards “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons,” sent the Academy a telegram asking to be taken off the ballot and said, “I respectfully request that you withdraw my name from the list of nominees. My request is in no way intended to denigrate my colleagues.” His plea was in vain, and the Oscar (his second) still resides in a museum. Brando did not telegraph his intentions the way Scott did, but he famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to deliver a politically inclined speech in his absence. Decades earlier, Dudley Nichols refused his 1935 screenplay Oscar because of a writers’ strike, but he reportedly accepted it three years later.

In the history of the Rock Hall, though, it’s traditional for artists who have a problem with the institution or their induction to simply not show up. In 2019, Thom Yorke broke the news to Variety that he would not be attending the ceremony, though Radiohead didn’t actually try to refuse the honor. “We’ve always been very blasé about that stuff,” Yorke said at the time. “So we don’t want to offend anyone. We just think that we just don’t quite understand it.” Two other band members did show up to accept, but Yorke’s excuse for not attending the induction: he had a conflicting engagement in Paris… nine days later.