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Jolene: The Story of Dolly Parton’s Breakthrough Hit

By Katie Gillespie

Appearing on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1973, twenty-seven year old Dolly Parton–with her signature big hair and her Tennessee drawl–introduces her newest song to the audience. Jolene has just been released and, as she tells Wagoner, “It is kinda different, it kinda makes you think of an old folk song.” 

Cue the soft guitar line, plucked again and again as Parton pleads with her titular character. The minor chord progression portends the singer’s heartbreak as she finds herself in a much-feared situation. The fate of her relationship is subject to the whim of a beautiful rival who could, if she wished, easily take Parton’s man. The stripped-down vulnerability at the heart of her lyrics is one that extends beyond the words she sings. In Jolene Parton recognizes that we all have our fears, jealousies, and insecurities, whether we admit to them or not. 

Dolly Parton on the Porter Wagoner Show, 1974, Source: Youtube 

Jolene’s name resounds throughout the duration of the song. It is the first and therather haunting ―last word that Parton sings. The emotional complexity of Jolene is contained in the song’s two verses and chorus. 

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

Each striking cry of her rival’s name ascends through the song’s C# minor key to climax on the fourth “Jolene”. As desperation embeds itself in Parton’s plea her voice tumbles back down the scale, defeated. 

The name of the track was inspired by a redhaired, young fan who asked for Parton’s autograph early in her career. The singer recalls asking the fan her name and thinking “Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.” However, Parton asserts there is truth in the story behind her song. At their local bank branch, a clerk took a fancy to her husband, Carl Dean. “She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention,” Parton explains, adding that “it was kinda like a running joke between us.” Now married to Dean for fifty-seven years, the flirtations of a bank clerk failed to sever the bond between Parton and her husband. 

On February 2, 1974, Jolene earned Parton her second number-one single on the Billboard Country Singles chart as a solo artist. She had, up to this point, only had success in the Country charts, largely with duets she and Wagoner had recorded together. However, Jolene propelled Parton into the mainstream with the song entering the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at number 60. The success of Jolene likely gave Parton the final push to leave The Porter Wagoner Show two weeks later, on February 19, to embark on her solo career. It also brought her international recognition. In 1976 Jolene would reach number 7 in the UK chart. The following year Parton sang her hit in front of Queen Elizabeth II for the Royal Variety Show as a part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. 

From that moment onwards Jolene crystalized its status as a popular anthem. In 2004 Rolling Stone included the song at number 217 in a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. When the magazine updated the list in 2021, Jolene had been bumped up to number 63. 

Dolly Parton at Glastonbury Festival, 2014, Source: Matt Crossick/PA Wire

Over seventy artists have covered Jolene in the five decades since its release, among them Olivia Newton John, The White Stripes, and Parton’s own goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. Jolene is Parton’s most streamed song on Spotify, with over 561 billion streams since the platform was established in 2006. What is it about Jolene that has contributed to its sustained success? It’s catchy, that’s for sure. However, the urgency of Parton’s vocals, her sweet gracefulness, and her ability to summon complex emotions in her listener all make for timeless storytelling. 

Beyond the music industry, Jolene has entered the pop culture zeitgeist, featuring in TV shows and films like Glee, American Dad!, This Is Us, and Dumplin', for which Parton penned the soundtrack. The phrase "to be a Jolene" has entered our vernacular, and if you wanted to wear the hit on your chest? You can purchase a t-shirt that advises you, 'In a World Full of Jolenes, Be A Dolly.' Parton’s hit has transcended the status of mere song. 

Dolly Parton's Jolene has become a cultural touchstone, influencing various forms of media and social discourse. The song’s universal themes and emotional resonance cements its relevance and impact across different facets of contemporary culture. That’s not going to change any time soon. 


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