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Country Classics Revisited: Dolly Parton Tells Childhood Truths With ‘Coat of Many Colors’

Of the thousands of songs to Dolly Parton’s credit, 1971’s “Coat of Many Colors” best sums up her rags to riches story and the faith in God that still guides her path as a universally-loved celebrity.

Like “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “(In the Good Old Days) When Times Were Bad,” the song acknowledges Parton’s rough East Tennessee upbringing. As the fourth of 12 children, she relied on the kindness of others decades before becoming a generous benefactor for future generations of needy kids.

The true tale of Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton, sewing her daughter a coat from donated scraps turns into a Biblical story about Joseph from the book of Genesis. While Joseph’s story from the Bible found him shunned by his brothers over a fancy gift from their father, Parton got mocked at school by more fortunate kids for her homemade garment. From high-class robes to low-brow coats, there’s two lessons to be learned about a parent’s love and dealing with others’ judgment.

Parton wrote the song in 1969 while on a tour bus with longtime singing partner and television co-star Porter Wagoner. Because she couldn’t find anything else to write on, she jotted the original lyrics down on the back of one of Wagoner’s dry cleaning receipts. The framed receipt now hangs next to a replica of the original coat, also sewn by Parton’s mother, in Dollywood’s Chasing Rainbows museum.

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For its frank honesty and universal message, the title track off Parton’s Bob Ferguson-produced 1971 album became an instant American country music classic. It’s a fantastic opening track for deep cuts like “The Mystery of the Mystery,” “A Better Place to Live,” “The Way I See You” and future Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt collaboration “My Blue Tears.”

A Lasting Legacy

Influential fans of the song include Canadian pop-country sensation Shania Twain. She recorded a version of the longtime personal favorite with Alison Krauss and Union Station for the 2003 covers album Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton.

Nowadays, the song’s title and message are as identifiable with Parton as “Jolene,” big hair and butterflies. A 1996 children’s book with illustrations by Judith Sutton introduced its title song to a new generation of fans. It since became the inspiration for two tv movies about Parton aired by NBC: 2015’s Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors and 2016’s Christmas of Many Colors. Both star Alyvia Alyn Lind as young Dolly.

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Country Classics Revisited: Dolly Parton Tells Childhood Truths With ‘Coat of Many Colors’