So you’re about to cover a Led Zeppelin song. Maybe you choose ballads like “Going to California” or “That’s the Way.” Those tracks eliminate the need for electric guitar virtuosity, so you can avoid the Jimmy Page comparison. Or maybe try a stopper like “trample under foot”. But under no circumstances would you choose the “Stairway to Heaven”?
Dolly Parton did it. Parton’s take on the elephant in classic rock’s antechamber closed her 2002 bluegrass album, hellos and horns. And since Parton did some ad-libbing in his version of “Stairway,” he needed explicit approval from Page and Robert Plant, the songwriters of Japp’s 1971 anthem.
Parton recalled that he was “scared to death” when he sent it to Page and Plant. “I knew I was walking on holy ground because it’s a classic,” she said (via) dolimania) but Parton got her approval and, better yet, words of praise from both Plant and Page. In an interview at the time, Plant elaborated on his feelings about Parton’s “ladder.”
Robert Plant loves aspects of Dolly Parton’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Robert Plant revisits his time as a musical ‘mad whore’ in the post-Led Zeppelin years
Parton decided not to tackle “Stairway to Heaven.” “It was a song I loved and a song that [her husband] loved Karl,” she said upon release hellos and horns (via Dolimania). “We loved it together.” Yet that didn’t mean she would cover note-for-note.
The Parton seal on the track actually bounces on you starting at the 4:00 mark. “You can’t buy it, you can’t borrow it,” she sings at 4:27. “You have to walk it straight and narrow.” Parton offered a straight materialistic reading of Plant’s lyrics. Later, when a choir sound comes in, the track’s output really gets bigger.
Plant told the now-closed Launch that he liked Parton’s vocals on the track. “The thing is she’s not crying,” said Plant (via) sled roxx) “She’s keeping it within the genre, and she’s a good singer.” Plant didn’t hold it against him, with Parton’s “Great Almighty Dollar” and “You have to work to get to heaven” lines for the departure.
“Maybe he didn’t get the last bit right,” he told Launch. “And maybe that’s how the idioms have changed so much, that maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the way.”
Parton used a choir on ‘Ladder’ before Hearts at the Kennedy Center Honors
If you’re talking about the “ladder” cover, you need to mention the exquisite treatment given by Harts Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. On that performance, Wilson had the backing of a huge choir, and it gave the performance the epic scope it deserved. (Led Zeppelin loved it.)
Plant told Parton that he had approved her use of the choir a decade earlier. “Robert Plant said he always thought of it as a spiritual song,” Parton said (via Dollymania). “He was thrilled that we used a choir on him, because he thought of that as well.”
Above all, Plant did not consider the “ladder” to be a sacred cow. “For it to be covered here, there and everywhere, it doesn’t really matter,” he told Launch in ’02. “I mean, it’s just another time.” To illustrate his point, Plant gave the outlet one of its classic zingers. “It’s like Kylie Minogue doing ‘Smokestack Lightning,'” he told Launch.