Dolly Parton is an entertainment icon with a global fan base and a resume that includes film, television, books and Broadway. She’s well known for her flamboyant persona underscored with sweet Southern charm, but at the very core of all that Parton is and all that she does is an astounding musical legacy built on some of the most memorable songs in country music history.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Parton has won seven Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards, five Academy of Country Music Awards, three American Music Awards and is one of only five female artists to win the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award.
She’s sold more than 100 million records, earning 25 RIAA certified gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards. Out of the 110 singles she’s placed on the charts, 25 have hit No. 1, a record for a female artist.
At the moment, Parton is busy promoting the release of her 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke, released Tuesday (May 13) by Sony Music Masterworks and Dolly Records. As she serves up a new collection of tunes, here’s a look back at some of the songs that have defined her career.
“The Last Thing on My Mind”
The duet with Porter Wagoner became Parton’s first Top 10 hit. Written and originally recorded by folk singer-songwriter Tom Paxton in the early 1960s, they released the song in 1967. It was revived again by the Punch Brothers and Stark Sands on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. The lyric captures the angst of a relationship unraveling, and Wagoner and Parton’s vocal chemistry turned the song into a hit, thus launching them as one of country music’s most successful duos. For the next six years, every duet they released hit the Top 10.
Though Parton and Wagoner were having a successful run on the charts, it took a while for her solo career to gain momentum. She signed with Monument Records in 1965 and released a few lackluster singles. Wagoner helped her get a deal at RCA, and her first single “Because I’m a Woman” hit No. 17. Her cover of the Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” peaked at No. 3, and Parton finally landed a solo No. 1 with “Joshua,” an up-tempo story song about an orphan girl who befriends a loner that townspeople had branded as mean and unapproachable. When she gets the courage to visit his old shack, the two strike up a friendship that turns to love.
“Coat of Many Colors”
Released in October 1971, this autobiographical tune was the second single released from Parton’s Coat of Many Colors album. She’s been quoted as saying it’s her favorite song she’s written. Though the tune only climbed to No. 4 on the charts, it’s considered by many to be Parton’s signature song. In the lyric, the East Tennessee native chronicles her hardscrabble childhood and recounts a time when the family couldn’t afford to buy her a new coat, so her mother made her one by sewing rags together they’d been given while relating the story of Joseph from the Bible. When Parton wore the coat to school, she was ridiculed by the other students. She didn’t understand their disdain because she told them of the love her mama sewed in every stitch which made the multicolored garment priceless to her. Parton composed the song on a tour bus while traveling with Wagoner, and when she couldn’t find a piece of paper, she wrote the lyric on a dry cleaning receipt which Wagoner had framed when the song became a hit. The song’s closing lines are among Parton’s best gems: “But they didn’t understand it/And I tried to make them see/That one is only poor/Only if they choose to be/Now I know we had no money/But I was rich as I could be/In my coat of many colors/My mama made for me.”
In 1974, “Jolene” served as the title track of Parton’s 13th solo album and became her second No. 1 single as a solo artist. The song also helped Parton achieve a crossover hit on the pop chart and became her first hit in the U.K., climbing to No. 7. Over the years, the song has been covered by a variety of other artists, among them the White Stripes, Olivia Newton-John, Sherrie Austin and Ellie Goulding. One of Parton’s most memorable songs, there’s an urgency in the melody and the lyric which finds Parton begging a red-haired beauty to leave her man alone in such lines as “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.”
“I Will Always Love You”
Originally released in 1974 as the second single from Parton’s Jolene album, “I Will Always Love You” is a song that has had many lives. Parton wrote it for Wagoner during the time she was severing their professional relationship and striking out on her own. She originally recorded it in June 1973 and later re-recorded the song in 1982 for the soundtrack of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a film starring Parton and Burt Reynolds. It’s been No. 1 twice for Parton, making her the first artist to hit No. 1 with the same song on the Billboard country singles chart. It was also a No. 1 hit for the late Whitney Houston, who recorded it for her 1992 film The Bodyguard, marking Parton’s third trip to the summit as the songwriter. The song became one of the best-selling singles of all time. Parton also charted the song again — peaking at No. 15 — when she recorded it as a duet in 1995 with Vince Gill. One of the most compelling lyrics Parton has ever written, the song explores the dissolution of a relationship but instead of ending in bitterness and resentment, the lyric says: “I hope life will treat you kind/And I hope you have all that you ever dreamed of/I wish you joy and happiness/But above all this, I wish you love.”
“Here You Come Again”
In the mid-70s, Parton consciously began a campaign to expand her audience and took her music in a more mainstream pop direction. It didn’t happen overnight, but when she enlisted noted pop producer Gary Klein for her 19th album, Parton finally achieved the pop success she had been courting with the 1977’s Here You Come Again. Written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the title track is an upbeat anthem that became a No. 1 country hit, topping the chart for five weeks and peaking at No. 3 on the pop chart becoming her first Top 10 pop hit. The album hit No. 1 on the country albums list and No. 20 on the pop chart. “Here You Come Again” earned Parton the 1979 Grammy for best country vocal performance. In the song, Parton sings of a man returning to her life and once again shaking up her world in such memorable lines as “All you have to do is smile that smile/And there go all my defenses/Just leave it up to you and in a little while/You’re messin’ up my mind and fillin’ up my senses.”
“Two Doors Down”
Parton capitalized on her burgeoning success in the pop field by following “Here You Come Again” with this lively tune about a woman who refuses to wallow in despair after a breakup. Instead, she’s decided to head two doors down where people are “laughing and drinking and having a party.” Country artist Zella Lehr took this song to the Top 10, but Parton’s rollicking anthem went all the way to No. 1 on the country chart and become a Top 20 pop hit. It remains one of the most beloved tunes in Parton’s weighty arsenal of hits.
“9 to 5”
Parton wrote this upbeat ode to working class angst as the title song for the 1980 film she starred in alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. It was Parton’s film debut, and she was well received in her role as Doralee Rhodes, a feisty secretary who conspires with two co-workers to turn the tables on their sexist boss. The lyrics paint a portrait of the hardworking, under-appreciated working class, and it’s all set to a thumping beat and delivered in Parton’s inimitable vocal style. “9 to 5” earned Parton an Academy Award nomination and four Grammy nods, winning best country song and best country vocal performance by a female. One of Parton’s biggest hits, the song topped the country and adult contemporary charts as well as the Billboard Hot 100 and also spawned a Broadway musical for which Parton wrote all the songs.
“Islands in the Stream”
Released in 1983, the duet with Parton was the first single from Kenny Rogers’ Eyes That See in the Dark album and became a massive hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the country and adult contemporary charts. A skillfully crafted pop confection, “Islands in the Stream” was written by the Bee Gees and boasts a buoyant melody and an upbeat lyric that celebrates a loving, committed relationship. The song sold more than 2 million copies to become one of the biggest hits of the ’80s, and the song’s popularity has continued. It has sold nearly 600,000 digital downloads and, in 2005, topped CMT’s poll of the best country duets of all time.
“To Know Him Is to Love Him”
Parton teamed with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt for 1987’s Trio album, spawning a revival of this Phil Spector tune which the trio took to the No. 1 spot on the country chart. Though the album was reportedly 10 years in the making, it proved to be well worth the wait as it spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard country albums chart, was certified multi-platinum and spawned four Top 10 hits. “To Know Him Is to Love Him” showcased Parton, Harris and Ronstadt’s distinctive vocals and shimmering harmonies. The song earned the trio a Grammy for best country performance by a duo or group with vocal. Parton, Harris and Ronstadt reunited for Trio II in 1999 and earned another Grammy for their cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”