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The Story Behind Dolly Parton’s Classic Song ‘Jolene’

The Story Behind Dolly Parton's Classic Song 'Jolene'
Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images, Marsha Traeger
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Back in October 1973, Dolly Parton put out “Jolene” as her first single from her album, also called “Jolene,” which had another famous song, “I Will Always Love You.” People couldn’t get enough of “Jolene” because of Dolly’s great storytelling and her beautiful singing. It became a huge hit, making Dolly Parton famous with five No. 1 songs and even reaching the pop charts.

In the ’70s, “Jolene” got nominated for two Grammy awards in the Best Female Country Performance category — one for the original version and another for a live performance. But it wasn’t until 2017 that Dolly won her Grammy. She teamed up with the singing group Pentatonix to make a new version of “Jolene,” and that version won the Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.

>>READ ALSO: Dolly Parton Reveals That There’s Just one Thing That Might Lead Her to Retire

The True Story Behind Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’

The idea for the song “Jolene” came from a sweet encounter Dolly Parton had with a young fan. She met a little girl with red hair and green eyes named Jolene who was asking for an autograph. Dolly was struck by her beauty and thought her name sounded like a song, so she decided to write one about it.

However, the story in the song was inspired by a different situation. There was a bank teller who had a crush on Dolly’s husband, and she would always give him extra attention when he went to the bank. Dolly would joke with her husband about spending too much time there, even though they didn’t have much money. So, despite the song sounding intense, it’s actually based on innocent experiences.

A Cascade of Covers

“Jolene” may seem like a simple song with just 200 words, many of which are repeated, but its ability to build tension, its driving beat, and its relatable vulnerability in the lyrics have inspired countless artists to put their own spin on it.

Shortly after Dolly Parton released it, Olivia Newton-John recorded her version for her album “Come On Over,” infusing it with urgency and making it another hit.

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In the early 2000s, Mindy Smith’s rendition earned her a record deal, with Parton herself praising her take on the song. Smith focused on portraying the depth of the narrator, seeing Jolene as more of a powerful force than a person.

Miley Cyrus’s cover in 2012 showcased her vocal talents and connected her with her country music roots, earning her acclaim. She has performed the song live multiple times since.

>>READ ALSO: Dolly Parton Says Her Husband Was “Jealous” Over Her Halftime Outfit

The White Stripes regularly performed a raw version of “Jolene” in the early 2000s, with Jack White imagining the red-headed girl as his wayward significant other.

Even goth band The Sisters of Mercy put their spin on the song in 1983, giving it a dark, danceable vibe.

In November 2021, Lil Nas X delivered a stirring cover of “Jolene.”

The variety of genres that have embraced “Jolene” illustrates its universal appeal and the resonance of its themes of desperation and vulnerability. Dolly Parton, the iconic singer from Tennessee, still loves performing the song, and it’s clear that many other vocalists share her passion for the captivating, heart-wrenching tale of “Jolene.”

Dolly Parton performs Jolene at Glastonbury – BBC

>>READ ALSO: Here’s Why Dolly Parton Doesn’t Wear Her Wedding Ring

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