Dolly Parton’s 10 best songs: from Jolene to The Bargain Store

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“When I was young I used to wonder how I would be remembered and thought of if I made it in the business after I was old," Dolly Parton recently told the Standard, ahead of releasing Rockstar on November 17.

Recorded after she was invited to join the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame – Parton originally declined on the basis she makes country music, before deciding to embrace the genre of rock – it features a whole host of other artists including Debbie Harry, Elton Jon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Melissa Etheridge.

A country icon who has put her name to everything from acting to incredible charity work, it's perhaps no real surprise that Parton is still throwing curveballs, 49 solo albums into her career, and accordingly her back catalogue is rich with all manner of different takes on country and pop.

In the run up to Rockstar's release, we've attempted to narrow it down to the best of the best: the essential Dolly tracks...

10) Just Because I’m A Woman

In 1968, very few artists – let alone country musicians – were singing about the sometimes tough realities of womanhood. Recorded while Dolly Parton was still part of a duo with Porter Wagoner, this relatively early solo release bursts with feeling – frustration, anger,  and a hunger to prove everyone wrong bursts out of her vocals. “Now a man will take a good girl and he'll ruin her… reputation,” she sings, highlighting the intense sexist double standards at play. “But when he wants to marry, well, that's a different situation.”

The song was inspired by a conversation Parton had with her husband Carl Dean early in their marriage, and grew into a kind of country western women’s liberation anthem. "When I was first married, Carl and I were very happy," Parton said of the song. "When eight months in he suddenly asked me whether I'd been with anyone else before we got together. I told him I had and he was so upset, he had a hard time getting over it. That's why I wrote it: 'My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I'm a woman.' Carl hates for me to tell the story, but I say to him, I've got to tell the truth, don't I?"

9) The Bargain Store

Despite various smutty interpretations of this song (several country music stations banned it after deciding the lyrics were suggestive) Parton actually wrote The Bargain Store about how having experienced heartbreak in the past only makes a person cling harder to love when they find it again.

Admittedly, there are a couple of lines that come off as mild innuendo, but the amount of pearl-clutching it triggered paints a vivid picture of the strict climate in which Parton was operating. Parton has shied away in the past from calling herself a feminist, but as a young female country star using the genre as an outlet to sing about the true reality of her own life, she was undoubtedly a trailblazer.

8) Light of a Clear Blue Morning

Before forging a truly legendary career as a solo artist, Parton was part of a duo alongside fellow country singer Porter Wagoner. After deciding to break away and pursue new directions as a solo artist in 1974, Parton released the bittersweet farewell ballad I Will Always Love You in the midst of the immediate turmoil; several legal battles followed. Once the dust settled, then came the gospel-influenced Light of a Clear Blue Morning – Parton has referred to it as a "song of deliverance" and a parting of the clouds.

Hopefulness and transformation pours out of this upbeat song, which Parton wrote about driving home from Wagoner’s studio in a rainstorm, and the grey suddenly lifting. “It's been a long hard fight/But I see a brand new day a dawning,” she sings. Months later, she would release her big, breakthrough album Here I Come Again, transforming her into a solo star.

7) My Tennessee Mountain Home

On the sleeve for Dolly Parton’s heavily autobiographical 1973 album My Tennessee Mountain Home, the wooden cabin where she and her family grew up, “snuggled up there in the foothills of the Smokies” takes pride of place. A warm, roaring fire of a record, it’s the simple, uncomplicated feeling of knowing that you’ve arrived home, bottled in musical form.

As well as documenting the challenges Parton and her family faced (“We've gone to bed hungry many nights in the past/In the good old days when times were bad,” she sings elsewhere on the album) this title track also captures the frequent moments of joy and beauty: the fragrant honeysuckle vines, the glow of the fireflies, and the way that even the nature surrounding them seemed to burst into song.

On the porch of her Tennessee mountain home, Parton would use an empty tin can as a makeshift microphone and serenade the chickens and pigs, dreaming of becoming a star one day in Nashville. “I imagined it, I dreamed it, I worked for it," she said, "and God was good enough to let me have it."

6) Islands in the Stream

Helped by one of Gavin and Stacey’s most memorable scenes – in which Nessa and Bryn sing an awkwardly charged rendition of this Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers collaboration – Islands in the Stream has become something of a karaoke classic. Originally written by the Bee Gees with an R&B star like Diana Ross in mind, Rogers grew to dislike the song during various attempts to record it as a solo track: and then, Barry Gibb had a brainwave. “You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.”

Luckily enough, Parton was just up the road, and a couple of hours later – in the same spot where she made Jolene and I Will Always Love You– it translated effortlessly to a harmony-laden country-pop duet. “Once she came in and started singing the song was never the same,” Rogers once recalled. “It took on a personality of its own.” The collaboration kickstarted a decades-long friendship.

"You know how sometimes you get tired of singing something because it just becomes routine? But I would always lighten up when that particular song was due in the setlist,” she would later say of their 1983 duet, following Rogers’ death. “It just always made everybody feel so good in the audience and the audience always loved singing it. I never got tired of Kenny's voice."

5) Coat of Many Colors

One of her earliest hits, Parton first wrote the lyrics to Coat of Many Colors on the back of a dry-cleaning receipt in a tour bus; the song tells the story of Parton’s mother stitching together a beautiful coat from a pile of spare rags, and retelling the Biblical story of Joseph and his technicolour dream coat as she stitched.

The country gem is directly inspired by Parton’s upbringing in East Tennessee. The fourth of 12 children, Parton and her family lived in a one room cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River, and had very little money; Parton described her childhood as “dirt poor” and has spoken about how her mother would constantly keep everybody entertained by sharing pieces of Smoky Mountain folklore and singing old ballads. The coat of many colours referenced in this song is entirely real, and her mother eventually made a replica for display in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood.

It’s a truly beautiful song about the true value of life having nothing to do with money. “Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be, in my coat of many colors, my momma made for me,” she sings.

To this day, Parton supports a huge number of different charities: including her very own Dollywood Foundation, which supports children in the Tennessee region. Her impact has been truly phenomenal; her buddy up programme reduced high school drop out rates in Sevier County from 35 per cent to 6 per cent, while the Imagination Library has now distributed over 200 million free books to young children globally.

4) Here You Come Again

Along with 9 to 5, this is one of Parton’s greatest country pop crossover moments – and unlike most of her self-penned hits, it’s technically a cover of an earlier recording by BJ Thomas, and was written by the iconic partnership of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. During the recording of her own, now definitive, version Parton apparently begged her producer Gary Klein to add the country influence of a steel guitar to the song, in order to anchor it more clearly into the rest of her country-heavy back catalogue – and it’s a savvy call which paid off. Bridging the gap perfectly between Parton’s poppier side, and her country western roots, it’s among her most successful songs: it won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and when it charted at number three on the Billboard 100, it marked her first big mainstream hit.

3) 9 to 5

Is there anything Dolly Parton can’t do? As well as being a country music legend, one of the best selling artists of all time, and an enormously generous philanthropist, she’s also a gifted actor; starring in the truly heart wrenching comedy-drama Steel Magnolias, and bagging a Golden Globe nomination for 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. My favourite of Parton’s films, though, is the brilliantly absurd, Jane Fonda-starring comedy 9 to 5: which sees a gang of fed-up corporate girlies rising up against their deeply sexist boss and implementing a series of progressive workplace policies while his colleagues believe he’s mysteriously ‘off sick’.

During filming Parton realised that clacking together her acrylic nails made a sound akin to a hammering typewriter; the distinctive click forms the percussive drive of 9 to 5 – the hit she wrote for that film’s soundtrack. One of her poppiest numbers by far, unionising has never sounded catchier: “You're just a step on the boss man's ladder, but you got dreams he'll never take away,” she sings backed by an urgently pounding piano, and the jaunty parps of a horn section. The song won two Grammys, an Oscar nomination, and remains one of Parton’s most beloved hits.

2) I Will Always Love You

Though this mega-ballad found a blazing second wind as the late Whitney Houston’s signature song after she sang it for The Bodyguard’s soundtrack in 1992, it was, of course, originally by Parton. While most artists might shudder in fear at the prospect of what was originally a fairly low-key song being stolen away and turned into a juggernaut soul epic, Parton was humbled by Houston’s version when she first heard it, and called the singer personally to thank her. “It was the most overwhelming feeling.. that this little song of mine could be done so beautifully, so big, so overwhelming, that really, I almost just had a heart attack right there on the spot,” she later recalled.

And, while it will always be heavily associated with Whitney “The Voice” Houston, the original version – which Parton wrote about parting ways with her long-time collaborator Porter Wagoner – offers something entirely different, and equally captivating. While Houston’s version wrestles with itself, fighting for composure even as she sings of letting somebody go forever with nothing but goodwill and cherished memories, Parton’s more understated delivery has a quiet sincerity: “Good-bye, please don't cry, 'Cause we both know that I'm not what you need.”

1) Jolene

There must’ve been something in the air when Dolly Parton wrote Jolene; she also came up with I Will Always Love You – only one of the greatest bittersweet ballads of all time, no biggy – on the very same day. A brilliantly economical country song, a gently picked guitar line tumbles over and over in Jolene, occasionally interrupted by flourishes of dobro and smatterings of light percussion – the emotional heft comes instead from Parton’s vivid, characterful lyrics. In it, Parton’s insecurity-riddled protagonist obsesses over the jealousy she feels towards a beautiful, auburn-locked stranger who her man won’t stop banging on about in his sleep. But rather than villainising her, this narrator begs to be spared: “Please don’t take him, just because you can”.

Parton has explained that Jolene’s name is inspired by a young fan who came on stage during a show to ask for her autograph, while the story itself stemmed from personal experience, and a red-headed bank teller who flirted with her husband, Carl Dean, when they were newly married.

Her most covered track, Jolene directly inspired a number of response songs and fascinating new interpretations. On the podcast Dolly Parton's America, for instance, the singer took part in a discussion about how her narrator’s admiration for Jolene contains certain queer subtext; Parton welcomed the alternative reading, and acknowledged this could be “another take on it". It all speaks to the sheer universality of this genius song.

Dolly Parton's new album Rockstar is out on November 17