Dolly Parton has always received a lot of attention for precisely the wrong reasons. Despite her status as one of the greatest country artists of her era, the woman once referred to as “the Marilyn Monroe of Nashville” seems to be recognized by the world at large more for her cup size than her musical ability. It’s a characterization (or perhaps caricature) that the lady herself has done little to discourage over the years, gussying herself up to emphasize her physical attributes and making jokes about her natural (turned unnatural) bounty. In fact, one of the items for sale on her website is a mud flap-style keychain bearing (baring?) that famous profile.
But whereas some modern celebrities with abundant physical assets seem to offer the world little else (I’m thinking of one pronounced posterior in particular), Dolly Parton brings to the table a whole lot more. Putting aside her considerable talents as a businesswoman, performer, and recording artist, what really makes Dolly Parton special when you get right down to it are two specific gifts: her clear-as-crystal mountain-bred voice, and, just as importantly, her masterful songwriting.
Over a span of 50 years, Dolly Parton has written a number of songs as enduring as any in country music. Although the majority of country music stars both past and present have depended on the songwriters dwelling in offices on Nashville’s Music Row to churn out new hits for them, Dolly Parton needed no such help in her heyday. In fact, she still doesn’t – her most recent album, 2014’s Blue Smoke, features eight self-composed songs out of 12. Distracted by her outsized image, most people are unaware of the depth and breadth of Dolly Parton’s creativity, but it has always been there underneath the glitzy surface.
Today, we take a look at Dolly’s songwriting by examining the stories behind six of her more famous self-penned songs. Since writing her first song at age 5, which she recently reprised on late night television, Dolly has written close to 3,000 songs and recorded almost 400 of them. Here are six of the most memorable.
“Coat of Many Colors”
One of the most touching songs Dolly Parton ever wrote, as well as one of her personal favorites, is “Coat of Many Colors.” The song is based on a real incident that happened when Dolly was a child.
Raised in a remote area of the Smoky Mountains, the Parton family was poor. They usually didn’t have money for new clothes by the time the school year rolled around (Dolly was one of 12 children, so resources were spread thin). One year, Dolly’s mother stitched together a new coat for her daughter out of old scraps of cloth. The resulting coat was a colorful patchwork, and Dolly’s mother compared it to Joseph’s multicolored coat as described in the Bible. For a young girl who grew up in an environment steeped in religion, this was a heady comparison. Dolly was immensely proud to wear it.
Unfortunately, once she got to school, Dolly’s classmates saw her coat and ridiculed her. Baffled that the coat she found so special was viewed in the eyes of the world as a symbol of her poverty, Dolly rebuffed the meanness of her peers by telling of the love her mother poured into the making of the coat and concluding that “one is only poor if they choose to be.”
It took Dolly several years to record the song, which she had started to play live around 1969. When she finally released her version in 1971, it was a Top Five country hit. Although other songs in her repertoire have charted higher on both the country and pop charts, “Coat of Many Colors” remains one of her most beloved and heartfelt compositions.
“Down from Dover”
Unlike a lot of country songwriters who have rarely ventured beyond standard themes of romantic heartbreak and honky tonkin’, Dolly Parton (like the equally popular Loretta Lynn) was not afraid to challenge what was considered acceptable as the topic for a country song. Whether she was writing from her own experience or composing fictional narratives, Dolly over the years would explore themes like abortion, child abuse, murder, and insanity, often from a decidedly more feminist standpoint than was conventional.
“Down from Dover” is a sterling example of Dolly’s narrative style. It tells the tale of a young pregnant woman who has been abandoned by her lover and kicked out of her home by her morally indignant parents. She finds a job taking care of an old neighbor and hopes that her lover will return to her; as the seasons pass, it becomes increasingly obvious that he will not. She has the child, but it dies at birth, a symbol of the now equally dead love that produced it.
Unlike some country songs that explore similar territory, “Down from Dover” is not sentimental or maudlin. It tells its story straightforwardly in the manner of an old mountain ballad, but with considerably more personal emotion. The arrangement is spare, the vocal aching. In the past, a song like this may have condemned the woman for her illegitimate pregnancy in much the same manner as the parents in the song, but instead, the effect here is one of profound sympathy for a woman who was used, abandoned, and left to fend for herself.
“Down from Dover” was not released as a single, but over the years since its appearance on the album The Fairest of Them All in 1970, it has grown in stature to be considered one of Dolly’s finest songs. Dolly Parton records contain many hidden gems like this one, an indicator of just how strong and prolific a songwriter she really is.
Dolly had been recording for over ten years, songs of others and songs of her own, before she achieved her first number one country hit in 1970 with the song “Joshua.” This unusual narrative song about a strong-willed orphan who finds a home with a misanthropic mountain recluse had a lightness of tone that even nudged it close to the Top 100 on the Pop chart.
Based on the similarity of the title, fans might have been forgiven for thinking that Dolly’s second number one hit, “Jolene,” released in 1973, was a sequel to “Joshua.” In fact, it couldn’t have been more different. Whereas “Joshua” was about a young woman who exuded confidence and had strong faith in human nature, “Jolene” was a song about insecurity, fear, and jealousy. “Joshua” had a brisk, major key melody with a lot of colorful imagery in the words; “Jolene” was a brooding, minor key tune that used repetitive language to emphasize the narrator’s anxiety.
Reportedly inspired by a tall redheaded bank clerk who seemed a bit too nice to her husband, Dolly spun her feelings about that largely innocuous situation into a dramatic lyric that took the form of a plea: The narrator begs Jolene, a ravishing beauty who can have anyone she wants, to set her sights on another man, not her own. As a young girl, Dolly was insecure about her appearance, considering herself tiny and backwoods plain, and it’s likely that these feelings fed into the feelings of inadequacy that color the lyric.
Like many of Dolly’s songs, “Jolene” expressed feelings that anyone could identify with, but women in particular recognized the song’s situation as close to their experience. Despite a sexpot image seemingly engineered to attract men, women made up a substantial portion of Dolly’s audience. Songs like “Jolene” were a big part of the reason.
Aside from being a massive country hit, “Jolene” was also the first Dolly Parton song to approach the Top 40 on the pop chart (it got up to 60). Its popularity is such that it remains her most covered song, performed by fellow country artists like Mindy Smith and Alison Krauss as well as rock performers like the White Stripes, the Sisters of Mercy, and Fiona Apple.
“I Will Always Love You”
Dolly Parton struggled along in the music business from the time of her first recording in 1957 all through the early and mid-1960s. She experienced most of her success during this period as a songwriter. That all changed in 1968 when Porter Wagoner, a best-selling country entertainer famous for his colorful western wear, chose Dolly as the new “girl singer” for his very popular syndicated TV show. Wagoner’s show reached millions of people nationwide every week, so appearing on the show was a guarantee of wide exposure. Dolly’s personality so impressed Wagoner that he chose her over 20 other candidates for the job, some of whom were certainly more well-known.
At first the partnership was very successful: Porter ran the show and produced the records they made together while Dolly composed most of the songs and became the star attraction at their concerts. However, both were headstrong people, and eventually Dolly began to chafe at the tight hold that Porter maintained over her career. In 1973, she made it clear to Porter that she intended to strike out on her own. Feeling betrayed, Porter greatly resented the decision, but he had no choice but to accept it.
Written in the aftermath of their public split, “I Will Always Love You” was Dolly’s emotional response to her years with Porter. Although both denied any extramarital involvement with each other, the ballad conveys a warmth and seriousness that seems to go beyond mere friendship. Porter reportedly cried when Dolly first played it for him. Whatever the truth between them, the song resonated with listeners who could identify with the universal sentiment of the lyrics and it became another #1 hit.
“I Will Always Love You” may have presaged a happy conclusion to a fraught period for the two stars, but in fact, their relationship deteriorated, and they nearly ended up in court over contractual issues a few years later. They settled their grievance privately but remained on bad terms for many years afterward. In 1987, Porter agreed to appear on Dolly’s TV variety show Dolly and they partially reconciled, although the irony of Porter guesting on the TV show of the woman he raised to stardom through his own TV show years earlier was probably not lost on either of them.
“I Will Always Love You,” of course, would go on to have a second life even greater than its first when Whitney Houston covered it in 1992. Her dramatic rendition was a great contrast to Dolly’s quieter, more tender one, but it became one of the biggest selling singles of all-time. Interestingly, the song charted twice for both women: For Dolly, it made the Top Ten in 1974 and 1982; for Whitney, it made the Top Ten in 1992 and again shortly after her death in 2012.
“The Bargain Store”
As a songwriter, Dolly Parton is primarily known for the simplicity of her melodies and the plainspoken language of her lyrics. As ostentatious as her outward appearance may be, bedecked as she is in rhinestones and sequins, her songs mostly forego language trickery and flowery turns of phrase. They say what they mean.
A notable departure in this regard is “The Bargain Store.” In this song, Dolly constructs a metaphor that forms the entire framework of the lyric. The singer of the song is a woman who is making tentative steps towards a new relationship after experiencing a damaging one. She likens her life to a junk shop, where merchandise is sold cheaply because it is used or somehow broken. The woman in the song considers herself damaged goods but still worth having. Like “Jolene,” the lyric is a plea, but this time to a prospective new partner.
Putting love in terms of commerce created a tricky situation for the song in the conservative country market. Some condemned the song, perceiving its metaphor as a reference to prostitution (“you can easily afford the price”), and many country radio stations banned it. Dolly was mystified by the reaction, never considering the song a “dirty song,” but she did steer clear of similar metaphors afterwards.
Misguided interpretations did not seem to hamper the song’s popularity with country fans. “The Bargain Store” would be the fourth of four consecutive number one singles that Dolly Parton posted in the 1973-5 period. It remains one of her most plaintive songs about the effects of heartbreak.
“9 to 5”
In the late 1970s, Dolly made a decision to move beyond country music and see if she could make inroads into the pop market. The move was not unprecedented. Country stars going back to Eddy Arnold and Patsy Cline had done the same, and many still do—witness the recent case of Taylor Swift, whose conversion from a country princess into a pop diva happened almost overnight. Dolly’s conversion wasn’t quite as “swift” or as complete, but at the time, it was certainly as successful. From 1977 to 1981, she had another streak of number one hits, but this time they were also Top 40 pop hits.
Around this time, Dolly also branched out into film. Jane Fonda sought to cast her in a film comedy about workplace discrimination called 9 to 5, and Dolly, despite little acting experience, agreed to do the movie. The tale of three secretaries who take revenge on their lecherous boss was a big box-office hit in 1980, partially due to Dolly’s engaging performance as Doralee Rhodes.
To go along with the movie, Dolly composed a title song, a jaunty pop number about workplace stress that she composed by tapping a rhythm out with her fingernails (a sound mimicked by a typewriter on the final version). “9 to 5” was Dolly’s biggest hit to date, reaching number one on the country and pop charts at the same time (she was only the second woman ever to do so). It also won two Grammys and became a kind of anthem for working women. In her own way, although she never identified herself as a feminist per se, Dolly had highlighted some of the ways that women were mistreated in the workplace, much as she had earlier expressed sympathy for how women could be mistreated by men in private.
The success of “9 to 5” marked a definite shift into a country pop sound that Dolly would mine for over a decade afterwards, and still does to some extent, although her more recent albums have placed more emphasis on country and bluegrass than her 80s work. “9 to 5” was revived briefly in 2009 when Dolly wrote songs for a Broadway musical based on it, but the show only ran for a few months before closing. Still, like all of the songs discussed on this list, “9 to 5” endures as a lasting example of Dolly Parton’s songwriting skill and a standard karaoke sing-along for working people everywhere.