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Dolly Parton’s Jolene: The Fascinating Story Behind The Song

Dolly Parton's Jolene
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Out of her immense catalog of hit songs, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is definitely among the most memorable ones and is arguably one of her greatest songs.

When it was released in 1973 as the title track from her thirteenth solo studio album, it claimed the top spot of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart – making it her second solo No. 1 hit on the country charts. When it was released in the United Kingdom, it became Dolly’s first top ten hit song in the country, peaking at No. 7 in the UK Singles Chart.

In addition to that, the heartbreaking song earned two Grammy Awards nominations for the category of Best Female Country Vocal Performance – first, for the originally released version and the subsequent year for its live version.

But what’s even more interesting is that after Dolly’s performance of “Jolene” at the Glastonbury Festival in 2014, it got into the charts once again, something that hardly ever happens in the music world.

But for Dolly, it’s easy to see why country fans so adore “Jolene.”

“It’s a great chord progression – people love that ‘Jolene’ lick,” the singer said. “And because it’s just the same word over and over, even a first-grader or a baby can sing, ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.’”

So, what do the lyrics mean?

The Story Behind The Song

Written by Dolly Parton herself, the singer finds herself confronting a strikingly gorgeous woman named Jolene – who she’s afraid would steal her lover away. All through the song, Dolly begs Jolene not to take her man just because she can.

Dolly opened up about the story behind the song. In one interview, the singer revealed that it was inspired by the actual events from her own life. 

Soon after Dolly tied the knot with her husband Carl Dean in 1966, a stunningly beautiful red-headed bank teller clearly started to flirt with him. And that bothered Dolly so much she decided “put a stop to that and got rid of that redhead woman in a hurry.” At the same time, it inspired her to write out what she feels.

However, the name “Jolene” actually came from a much more innocent place: a beautiful little girl she met in the autograph line at one of her concerts. Just like in the song, she had “this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes.” 

While the young girl looked up at her, waiting for her signature, Dolly asked her what her name was  – to which she answered, “Jolene.” Dolly found her name lovely enough, saying that it sounded like a song. So, without any hesitation, the country superstar told the girl she would write a song about her name, and she did just that.

Now, if you are feeling a little troubled about Dolly and Carl’s marriage after knowing the song’s meaning, you shouldn’t be. Though you’ll never see Dolly Parton’s husband Carl Dean in the front row at his wife’s shows, choosing to stay out of the spotlight, he has never left her side. In fact, the couple marked their golden wedding anniversary in 2016, and they did it in a very special way by getting married for a second time.

Best Covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

Even though it was released decades ago, “Jolene” never really does get old. Check out these revamped versions of the song from different artists.

  1. Pentatonix (2016). Dolly joined forces with renowned a cappella group Pentatonix for a fresh twist on her timeless song. As a result, the two musical teams delivered a coming-of-age remix of the song, where Dolly powerfully led the performance while Pentatonix jumped in for different solos. The cover was so well-received it took home the Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.
  2. Olivia Newton-John (1976). When Olivia Newton-John released her album Come on Over in 1976, she made it certain never to miss “Jolene.” Although her version of Dolly’s iconic song wasn’t released as a single in the United States, it was among her official singles in Japan.
  3. Mindy Smith (2003). Mindy Smith attracted attention in 2003 when she sang a cover version of “Jolene” for the tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman, and that helped her land a record deal.
  4. Queenadreena (2000).  You might have never thought of it, but Queenadreena gave “Jolene” a real makeover with their gothy alternative-rock version.
  5. Miley Cyrus (2012). A tribute to her doting godmother, Miley Cyrus showcased her pure and undeniably southern vocals in a very warm and powerful performance of “Jolene” for her series of music videos called, The Backyard Sessions. Through the years, Cyrus has made the classic song a staple of her live shows and TV appearances.

“Jolene” has actually been recorded by more than thirty artists and has even been translated into other languages. This includes Hong Kong pop star Agnes Chan who recorded a Cantonese version of the song in 1979.

Up to this day, it’s still one of the most popular among Dolly Parton songs, and its international popularity keeps on soaring. In fact, when the New Zealand government placed the country in lockdown amidst the ongoing global pandemic, a newspaper’s list of “ten essential things you need to know” demonstrated that you should wash your hand with a bar of soap for “as long as it takes to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice or the chorus of Dolly Parton’s hit song Jolene.”

You can listen to “Jolene” by Dolly Parton in the video below.

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