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Country Classics Revisited: Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’

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In October 1973, Dolly Parton released “Jolene” as the first single off of her new album also called Jolene. Due to the song’s mesmerizing nature, listeners couldn’t get enough of Parton’s storytelling and beautifully pleading vocals. The song started off Parton on a series of five No. 1 hits and even crossed over to take top spots on pop charts.

In the ’70s, the song was nominated for two Grammys in the Best Female Country Performance category – once for the recorded version, and the second time for a live recording. But it wasn’t until 2017 that Parton received the win when her version with acapella group Penatonix picked up the award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.

Origins of the Track

The inspiration for the title of the track stemmed from the musicality of a name Dolly Parton discovered from a young fan. “One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl — she was probably 8 years old at the time,” Parton told NPR. “And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph. 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 origin of the song’s story comes from a bank teller who was obviously longing after Parton’s significant other. “She got this terrible crush on my husband,” Parton explained. “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.”

Cover After Cover

“Jolene” is a rather simple song. It only has 200 words, many of which are repeated, but the building tension, the driving beat, and the relatable vulnerability displayed in the lyrics inspires many artists to take on the track and make their own version of the song.

Oliva Newton-John recorded the song only two years after Parton’s release for her album, Come On Over. She added a sense of urgency to the track, and John’s version also became a hit.

In the early 2000s, Mindy Smith landed a record deal due to her version of “Jolene,” with Parton singing her praises. Smith stated that she kept the thought in mind that the song’s narrator is really the main character with the most depth, and that Jolene is more of an unhumanized force of nature.

In 2012, Miley Cyrus was famously praised for her cover of the song since it showed off her vocals and connected her back to her country music roots. She’s performed the song live several times since.

Rock band The White Stripes regularly performed a raw version of the song in the early ’00s. Lead singer/guitarist Jack White said that in his mind he changed the context to the red-headed girl being his significant other who’s straying.

There’s even a goth cover of the song thanks to The Sisters of Mercy who added a dark, dancey feel to the track with their 1983 recording.

The vastly different genres that have taken on “Jolene” shows how beloved and relatable the song’s desperate repetition and vulnerability is. Dolly Parton says she still loves to sing the song, and it’s clear that many vocalists share her passion for the alluring, heartbreaking “Jolene.”

“Jolene” lyrics (written by Dolly Parton):

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
I’m begging of you: please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
Please don’t take him just because you can

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green

Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

He talks about you in his sleep
There’s nothing I can do to keep
From crying when he calls your name, Jolene

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
I’m begging of you: please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
Please don’t take him just because you can

You could have your choice of men
But I could never love again
He’s the only one for me, Jolene

I had to have this talk with you
My happiness depends on you
And whatever you decide to do, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
I’m begging of you: please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,
Please don’t take him even though you can

Jolene, Jolene

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Country Classics Revisited: Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’