A legendary performer, actor, respected philanthropist and all-around cultural icon, Dolly Parton has done it all. So you’d be forgiven if you overlooked the depth of her songwriting prowess. But the Smoky Mountain dynamo has written some of the most cherished tunes in country music history. Her songs — out of the over 3,000 she’s written — run the gamut of love, loss, faith and home. Even on the songs she didn’t write, Parton sings with such sincerity that you can’t imagine them coming from anyone else.
From a classic country kiss-off to a world class examination of jealousy and pain, here are the 15 best Dolly Parton songs, ranked.
This 1967 hit was written by songwriter Curly Putnam, but it perfectly summed up the suffer-no-fools persona that would make the whole world fall in love with Dolly. “Just because I’m blonde don’t think I’m dumb ’cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” she sang, letting everyone know that underestimating Dolly Parton would be the most foolish thing of all.
This 1977 song was written from the perspective of a daughter looking back on her parents’ marriage. It became a No. 3 hit for Emmylou Harris, who recorded it for her album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. This wasn’t the first time Parton wrote a hit song for someone else. Parton’s “Down From Dover” was recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Merle Haggard scored a No. 1 with “Kentucky Gambler” in 1975. Of course, several years later she’d have her biggest hit with Whitney Houston’s recording of “I Will Always Love You.”
This Bee-Gees-penned duet with Kenny Rogers features one of Parton’s most memorable vocal performances. The song was a worldwide smash, hitting the top of the U.S. Billboard Country charts in 1983.
Parton has had such a lengthy career it’s easy to forget her early years in Music City singing with Porter Wagoner led to some of her best work. Wagoner and Parton’s 1967 duet “The Last Thing On My Mind,” written by Tom Paxton, went to No. 6 on the country chart. Dolly and Porter would go on to have a string of top 10 hits for the next six years with songs like “If Teardrops Were Pennies” and “Just Between You and Me.”
The Smoky Mountains were possibly the greatest muse for the Sevierville, Tenn. native. She once wrote a song about Robert F. Thomas, the mountain doctor who delivered her. She penned “Tennessee Homesick Blues” for the film Rhinestone. But perhaps her greatest ode to the region is 1973’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” inspired by her life growing up as a little girl in the Tennessee mountains.
“Just Because I’m a Woman,” a stand against sexist double standards, proved that Parton wasn’t afraid to push boundaries even in 1968.
“The Bargain Store,” written and recorded by Parton for her 1975 album of the same name, uses secondhand goods as a metaphor for the narrator’s broken heart. The almost-eerie arrangement captured the agony of loneliness in a way that only Dolly can.
“The Grass is Blue,” from Parton’s 1999 bluegrass album of the same name, further proved that no one could write about heartbreak and desperation quite like her. The album helped boost Parton’s career and, along with the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, brought bluegrass to mainstream audiences.
Parton’s 1971 hit “Joshua” became her first single to hit No. 1 on the country charts. Parton mined her Appalachian roots once again for this hard-driving jam about a Tennessee woman and a burly mountain man.
Hollywood came calling for Dolly in the ’70s and ’80s. For the classic 1980 comedy 9 to 5, Parton penned the ultimate ode to overworked and underpaid women, giving a voice to the growing movement of women who demanded equal pay for equal work.
The irresistible “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” from Parton’s 1989 album White Limozeen follows a woman who just can’t help pining for a no-good cowboy in “painted on jeans.” Produced by Ricky Skaggs, the song is Parton at her best.
“Here You Come Again,” written by Barry Man and Cynthia Weil, was Parton’s first huge crossover hit. The song would lead to further success on the pop charts and won Parton a Grammy Award for best female country vocal in 1979.
“My coat of many colors that my mama made for me/made only from rags but I wore it so proudly,” Parton sings in this heart-wrenching story song about Parton’s own upbringing as a poor girl in Tennessee. It’s one of the best songs she’s ever written and showcases the soul-baring lyrics that made her a country music icon.
Widely considered one of the best love songs ever written, “I Will Always Love You” captures the pain of loving someone you can’t be with. Written as a goodbye to her mentor and frequent singing partner Porter Wagoner, the song has taken on a life of its own. Parton scored a No. 1 hit with the song twice and entered the top 20 with the track yet again in 1995 as a duet with Vince Gill. In 1992, Whitney Houston famously recorded the song, taking it to the top of the pop charts for 14 weeks.
Perhaps no Dolly Parton song has inspired as much fervor as “Jolene.” The tune about a woman-to-woman conversation captures the pain of jealousy as the narrator begs the gorgeous Jolene not to take her man. Parton says the song has been covered more than any other she’s written. And with good reason. There isn’t a soul alive who hasn’t felt what Dolly sings of in the song. “Jolene” is Parton’s best work.