As the decades pass, it's become pretty clear that people will always be hearing the hits of REO Speedwagon somewhere. In 2023, Dolly Parton helped to ensure that, when she chose to record a version of their iconic song "Keep On Loving You," with REO's frontman, Kevin Cronin.

"Keep On Loving You" was just one of over 30 songs that the country legend recorded for Rockstar, her 49th studio album -- one which she delivered in part as a way to add more rock and roll to her own legacy after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. She enlisted a staggering list talent from the rock world to help her complete the mission, including Judas Priest's Rob Halford, former Journey vocalist Steve Perry, Elton John and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler.

Cronin was understandably humbled when we spoke with him via Zoom. "Let's face it, she's Dolly Parton," he told UCR. "She's an institution."

But he was also quick to praise her approach to the craft. "When you sit there and talk to her about music and if you’re working on a song or recording together, it’s just like you’re talking to another guy in the band," he explained. "I mean, she knows exactly what’s going on. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like. So when she and I talk, we’re just two songwriters, chewing the fat and trying to make the best decisions for the song. It’s really refreshing when you meet someone who is that huge, but still at her core, she’s a musician, songwriter and recording artist."

For "Keep On Loving You," the pair would work together to turn the song into what Cronin termed as a "dark duet." In the first part of our conversation, he told us about the experience of seeing his song transformed.

Some people might not be aware that this was not Dolly's first encounter with your music. Back in 1989, she put out a bluegrass version of "Time For Me to Fly." How did you first hear about that?
If I remember correctly, I think I just got a copy when it was sent to the office. Obviously, there’s licensing and all of that legal stuff that has to happen. But once a song has been recorded and released commercially, anyone else in the world can record it, as long as they get a license and as long as they pay you as a songwriter. They don’t have to ask permission. If a product wants to use one of your songs to endorse a product -- or if a movie or a TV show wants to use it, then you need to grant your approval. But for someone to cut it [they don’t have to do that]. The first time I heard it, I swear to God, I think it was an LP. My first impulse was that I had it at 45 RPM instead of 33 ⅓. Because right out of the gate [it was really fast]. It had this awesome mandolin solo, plus fiddle and banjo solos. All of this great Americana stuff. I thought it was great. I mean, what an honor for someone who is as good of a songwriter as Dolly, to choose one of your songs to cover. That’s one of the biggest compliments I could ever expect to receive. It felt really good and it was a great experience, just the fact that she did it.

It's very striking, the approach that Dolly took with "Keep On Loving You."
I think it might have been my expression, that doing this song with Dolly, turned it into a dark duet. You know, the song in its original form, over the years, I’ve kind of felt a little funny about it. Because when you’re the songwriter and if you’re writing about a problem that you’re having in a relationship, of course, you’re going to paint yourself as a good guy and them as the bad guy. The truth is, it takes two snakes to tango. To do it with Dolly, my idea was that she would sing the first verse, so she was wronged. Now, I come in for the second verse and I sing the second verse and it’s like, “Wait a minute, I was wronged too.” Then, when it gets to “I meant every word that I said/ When I said that I love you/ I meant that I loved you forever,” it’s like, “Okay, we both were up to no good, but our love trumps the behavior. We’re going to get it together and I’m going to keep on loving you.”

Because that’s really what the song is about. It’s about redemption. It’s about hope and faith and forgiveness. But the thing was….I wanted to sing the whole second verse. One of the places where we [had to come to an agreement], I could tell that it was really important to Dolly to sing that first line. She goes, “And though I know all about those women,” to me, that was the perfect line, “And though I know all about those men,” it’s like, now I’m pointing the finger back at you a little bit. That’s where the dark duet came from. But Dolly really…she didn’t tell me why and I didn’t ask her why, but it was really important for her to sing that line. So the second verse became a little bit of a duet. But I’m happy with the way the record turned out. Dolly could have had anybody….I mean, she had anybody she wanted! Paul McCartney, Elton John, Sting, the list goes on and on, the big artists that are on this record. So I’m just honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as those people.

Listen to Dolly Parton and Kevin Cronin Perform 'Keep On Loving You'

I've heard the song a billion times, the original version that REO recorded. One particular section of the lyrics really stuck out to me with Dolly's version, "You played dead/ But you never bled/ Instead you laid still in the grass/ All coiled up and hissin'." She really took that section to the next level.
[Laughs] I’m glad to hear that. I’ve always said that I love it…and this is not at all false modesty -- I love it when real singers sing my songs. I was in Nashville in the early 2000s. Bekka Bramlett used to live in Nashville and she is one of the most soulful artists you’ll ever meet. Her voice is just unbelievable with what she does. She happened to be there when I was cutting country versions of some of my songs for the publishing company. We have a song called “That Ain’t Love.” It was never a big hit, but it was kind of a hit. I called up Bekka and she came in and sang the vocal on this kind of country-ish version of “That Ain’t Love.” She sang two takes and either one of them would have won a Grammy.

She took that song and I listened to it and I literally went back into rehearsal with the band and totally reworked the whole arrangement, because of what Bekka did. She took that lyric and man, did she sing the shit out of it. It was just beautiful. It really made the song. It made me go, “Oh. Yeah. Wow!” I used to always think that as long as I put the emotion into the writing of the song…I never thought of myself really as being a singer, even though I’m the lead singer in a rock band, which is kind of dumb. But over the past three years, I’ve been working with Jeffrey Allen, who is the head of the pop vocal program down at USC. Through Zoom and otherwise, he’s been my vocal coach for the past three years. It finally is starting to sink in and I’m starting to kind of feel like, “Well, okay, I think I can call myself a singer now!” I think I know how the instrument works, as opposed to just pounding it out and hoping for the best.

Visit REO Speedwagon's official website for their latest tour dates including their upcoming Las Vegas residency where they'll perform their classic Hi Infidelity album in full.

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