We love Dolly Parton for a lot of reasons—her iconic hair, her down-to-earth wisdom, and her pride in her Smoky Mountain roots are just a few. But really, it all goes back to the music. Ever since she started singing her way onto the country music scene in the late '60s, Dolly has stolen our hearts with countless hits that range from pure country to lighthearted pop. We've gathered up 10 songs that have solidified Dolly's status as a country music legend, and while you probably know most of these hit tunes, you may not know the stories that inspired them.
A country music classic, "Jolene" describes an alluring woman who is trying to steal the singer's husband; yet Dolly has always upheld that the name came from a young girl who once asked for her autograph at a concert. "One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl—she was probably 8 years old at the time," Dolly told NPR. "And she had this beautiful red hair ... and she was looking up at me ... I said, 'Well, you're the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?' And she said, 'Jolene.' And I said, 'Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.' I said, 'That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.'"
But the storyline of the song was, in fact, inspired by a grown woman, a redheaded bank teller that Dolly felt was a bit too friendly with her husband, Carl Dean. "She got this terrible crush on my husband," Dolly told NPR. "And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us—when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.' So it's really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one."
Even before Whitney Houston covered this song and made it even more famous, Dolly had huge success with what's come to be known as the ultimate breakup song, which hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1974 and again when she re-recorded it in 1982. Dolly originally wrote the song for her musical partner Porter Wagoner, after their years of singing duets on his television program, The Porter Wagoner Show, came to an end. "It's saying, 'Just because I'm going don't mean I won't love you. I hope you do great, and I appreciate everything you've done, but I'm out of here,'" Dolly told CMT.
Dolly starred in the 1980 film 9 to 5 alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and often used her downtime from filming to write new songs. One of the songs she wrote during that period was aptly named "9 to 5," and it ended up being used as the theme song for the movie (she wrote it with help from her acrylic fingernails in lieu of a guitar!). Dolly went on to win two Grammys for the track—Best Country Song and Best Female Country Performance—and the song became an anthem for working women everywhere.
The title song for the film Rhinestone, in which Dolly starred alongside Sylvester Stallone, "Tennessee Homesick Blues" topped the country charts and enjoyed greater success than the film itself. Dolly's spoken a lot about her childhood in Sevier County, Tennessee, and has consistently given back to her community over the years, including organizing a telethon to raise money after the area was ravaged by fires in 2016 and sponsoring a free books program for preschool-aged children that started in her home county in East Tennessee.
Written by the Bee Gees, this 1983 collaboration between Dolly and Kenny Rogers is considered one of the greatest country duets of all time, but initially, another singer was slated to record the track: Marvin Gaye.
When Kenny Rogers was pulled in to record the song, he thought something was missing, he later told Taste of Country. "I said, 'I don't even like this song anymore.' And [Barry Gibb] said 'What we need is Dolly Parton.' And my manager said, 'I just saw her downstairs.' So he brought her back in and once she came in, that song was never the same. She lit it up, and we became good friends from that point on," Kenny said. The feel-good, pop-infused track was a runaway success for the two singers, topping Billboard's Hot 100 and both the country and adult contemporary charts.
"Little Sparrow" marked Dolly's return to pure country music after a long tango with pop material like "Here You Come Again" and "Islands in the Stream." Successful as those songs were, Dolly's country fan base began to lose interest in the late '80s and into the '90s, but the singer took a turn with a series of bluegrass albums that reinvigorated her career and her audience. Also the title of her second bluegrass album, "Little Sparrow" has a soulful, acoustic style that echoes Dolly's Appalachian roots. "I call it my Smoky Mountain DNA; this music, I live it, I feel it, I grew up with that," Dolly told ABC News. "These are the songs I came out of the mountains singing and moved to Nashville and tried to make a living with. You can't make much money with this music, but it feels good to be back singing it."
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