Dolly Parton, born of humble beginnings and prodigious talent, is one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Choosing a list of essential Dolly classics is like a ‘Sophies Choice’ of musical favouritism, especially when you consider that she has written thousands of songs in the course of an almost 60-year long career. Dolly has amassed 25 number one country hits (a record shared with Reba McIntyre) and 44 top 10 country albums.
Dolly said her songwriting is “therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before.”
Dolly wrote the song after her longtime musical partnership with Porter Waggoner ended.
“Light Of a Clear Blue Morning was my song of deliverance,” Dolly said of the song in her 2020 book, Songteller. “I felt like I was trapped in a situation and needed to be free, because God was calling me, life was calling me, to something bigger. But I felt like my feet were nailed to the floor.”
Dolly’s first number one country hit, for which she also nabbed her first Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal. The song was about a mysterious mountain man who was feared for his temper but ultimately tamed by love.
“I love the story of this song,” Dolly said in Songteller. “But I also love its little musical arrangement. The record sounded really good. I based the character on two or three mountain men I knew as a kid, reclusive people who lived alone way back in the mountains. I just kind of built the story around them.”
The Grass is Blue (1999)
The title track from her album The Grass is Blue, her first foray into bluegrass. The album went on to win the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The album was also awarded Album of the Year at the 2000 International Bluegrass Music Awards.
Coat of Many Colors (1971)
Said to be one of her personal favourites, Coat of Many Colors is based on her own experience as a child. Dolly famously wrote the song on the back of a dry cleaning receipt because she couldn’t find any paper.
In 2011, Coat of Many Colors was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
I Will Always Love You (1973)
Anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock the past 30 years will know Whitney Houston’s massive cover of Dolly’s song from The Bodyguard soundtrack. Dolly, as the songwriter, made $10 million from that version, but for my money, Dolly’s version is vastly superior. Her tender, understated, and haunting vocal is simply beautiful and unforgettable. Dolly wrote the song after leaving her partnership with Porter Waggoner.
Dolly hit number one twice with the song, once in 1974 and again in 1982, when she re-recorded it for the soundtrack to the Best Whorehouse in Texas. Whitney Houston’s cover version spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard charts and became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Amazingly, Dolly wrote I Will Always Love You and Jolene on the same day! That’s the sign of a true genius at work.
Jolene has become a true Dolly staple and is instantly recognisable, even when other artists are covering it. In fact, Jolene, out of all of Dolly’s songs, has become the song most covered by other artists, including Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Olivia Newton-John, Alison Krauss, The White Stripes and Lil Nas X.
The song, which became Dolly’s second number-one single, was inspired by a red-headed bank teller who flirted with Dolly’s husband Carl, shortly after their marriage. Dolly and Carl have been married for 55 years.
The Jolene @destructoamf remix music video is out now! I’m still trying to get those dance moves down – hashtag #Jolene on TikTok if you figure it out! https://t.co/GcFLlljyoM pic.twitter.com/si2rd1SfFX
— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) December 2, 2021
Love is Like a Butterfly (1974)
Dolly’s fourth number-one hit, which she described as a “very poetic, very descriptive, very innocent, and very flowery song,”
“I have loved butterflies from the time I was very little,” Dolly wrote in Songteller. “I used to get lost in the woods, chasing them. I was not afraid of them, because they were so gentle. I knew they weren’t going to bite me or sting me. They were beautiful and colorful, and they were doing something, being productive and being harmless.”
Two Doors Down (1977)
Dolly wrote this song when she was on a liquid diet and couldn’t eat anything but foul protein shakes. One day while on tour, she could hear her band having a great time at the restaurant at the Howard Johnson’s where they were staying. Dolly remembered thinking, “Well, I can’t eat. I can’t just sit here and feel sorry for myself. Why don’t I just write a song?” The song proved to be a popular crossover country-pop hit.
My Tennessee Mountain Home (1975)
Like Joshua and Coat of Many Colors, this song continues to be a perennial favourite amongst Dolly fans. It was the title track of her autobiographical concept album which, while not a massive commercial success, remains one of the most admired albums of Dolly’s career.
In Songteller, Dolly writes, “I love being a mountain girl, a country girl. And I’ve written so many songs about it. My Tennessee Mountain Home really talks about sitting on a front porch, leaning back like we used to, singing, and having peaceful times.”
The two-room cabin which was Dolly’s childhood home is pictured on the cover of the album.
9 to 5 (1980)
Perhaps Dolly’s most iconic song, 9 to 5 earned her an Academy Award nomination and four Grammy nominations. Dolly took home two of the Grammys: one for Best Female Country Vocal and the other for Best Country Song. 9 to 5 is, of course, the theme song for the film of the same name, and which was Dolly’s best moment as an actress. The film has given birth to a stage musical for which Dolly wrote an additional 20 songs. The musical received 15 Drama Desk nominations and four Tony Award nominations. The New York Post, in its review of the Broadway production, said of Dolly, “It shouldn’t surprise anybody she’s taken so well to the stage: She’s always been a storyteller first and foremost.”
— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) January 4, 2021
Other songs which should make it onto your Essential Dolly playlist:
Dumb Blonde, The Seeker, Dagger Through the Heart, Do I Ever Cross Your Mind, Just Because I’m A Woman, Sugar Hill, Little Sparrow, Wildflowers, and Travelin’ Thru, her Academy Award-nominated song from the film Transamerica.
*Images: Dolly Parton Facebook