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The Stories Behind 12 of Dolly Parton's Most Important Songs

When 21-year-old Dolly Parton released her debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly, back in 1967, she was eager to please. “There’s nothing like the first time for anything,” the country icon, who turned 75 on January 19, 2021, told Vanity Fair last year. “I’m a country girl and so I was excited, but I was nervous. I was hoping for the best — and I wanted to sing my best, to be my best to present myself to the musicians and the background singers. I wanted to impress them with my songs because I wrote a lot of the songs in the album and I just wanted to begin to be a professional.”

And that she has. Over the course of her career, Parton has written more than 3,000 songs, 108 of which have landed on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — including 54 Top 10 and 25 No. 1 hits — cementing her legacy in the business for more than five decades.

“I really think of myself as a songteller because I write songs, but I tell stories in my songs,” she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert of her November 2020 book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, which recounts the backstory of about 170 of her songs. Here, we look at how a dozen of Dolly’s greatest songs came to be.

“Dumb Blonde” (1967)

Parton’s first Top 10 record off her first album was “Dumb Blonde” — a track written by Curly Putman, who also wrote Tom Jones’ hit “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” The chorus says, “Just because I’m blonde don’t think I’m dumb ‘cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” a message which she told Vanity Fair she tries “to carry with me all these years.”

While on the surface it might have seemed like Parton could fit the bill of the song’s title, she was the polar opposite from the start — a smart, savvy business woman who wasn’t afraid to use her image to turn the tables. It seems particularly apropos that she launched her career with these tongue-in-cheek lyrics; after all, she’s also famously quipped, “I’m not offended by all of the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb … and I also know that I’m not blonde.”

That said, the song was crucial in her career trajectory as it was the one that got the attention of  The Porter Wagoner Show — the top syndicated country show at the time. “I was very excited I was stirring up a little ruckus around town,” Parton told Vanity Fair, recalling that Wagoner offered her a regular singing job on his show after hearing “Dumb Blonde.” “It was really that show that got me over the moon as far as my career.” Though she and Wagoner didn’t part on the best of terms after her seven-year tenure, she said the time was well worth it and that despite “tender feelings,” in the end they realized “eventually we all won.”

“Down from Dover” (1970)

When late night host Stephen Colbert asked Parton what some of her favorite songs were, she admitted it’s not always about the big hits. “I like songs that I’ve recorded in albums that a lot of people have never heard,” she said, calling out “Down from Dover,” about an unwed woman who had to leave home because she got pregnant and was holding out hope that the father of her child would come back for her.

“At the time, when I put it out on the record, they wouldn’t play it on the radio,” she told Colbert of the controversial lyrics. “Lord, now you can have a baby right on television — it’s all different!”

But for Dolly, she loves a solid narrative arc. “I really love some of my songs like that that tell stories,” she added. “Most of my songs that I like the best are songs that nobody’s ever heard.” As she wrote in Songteller, “When I was young, we didn’t go to the movies, so I just created my own stories. It’s kind of embedded in me to make up songs and stories.”

“Coat of Many Colors” (1971)

While Parton was on The Porter Wagoner Show, her songwriting never stopped. In fact, one hit was inspired by the seemingly tiniest of incidents on the road. “We were going on tour and Porter was getting on our tour bus and he had stopped at the cleaners to get his costumes that he’d had cleaned,” she explained to Vanity Fair. “There was a cleaning tag still on the tag on his suit that he had hanging on the wall — and the song just started coming to me.”

But the emotion was something that was long brewing. “It had been a memory that always hurt me and I’d been holding that inside and didn’t know it because it was a true story about that little ragged coat,” she told the magazine. On stage, as recounted on her live 2004 album Live and Well, she described the pain. “My mom made me a little coat one time out of scraps,” she recalled, explaining how so many people relate to the song because of suppressed scars. “I think a lot of people carry around a lot of hurt. They don't even realize that it's in there and I think most people have been made fun of about something.”

For Parton, the song has been “the little gift that keeps on giving,” since it has sparked a 1996 children’s book; 2015 TV movie starring Jennifer Nettles, Ricky Schroder, and Gerald McRaney; and a 2016 Christmas-themed sequel. “It’s just been a special little song,” she told Vanity Fair.

“Daddy’s Working Boots” (1972)

Several of Parton’s songs, including “In the Good Old Days” and “Daddy was an Old Time Preacher Man” (inspired by her Grandpa Jake), call out to hard-working fathers, but perhaps none is more direct than her 1972 song “Daddy’s Working Boots,” which starts off with a very personal, “My dear hard workin' daddy works his life away for us / That's the way that daddy shows to us his love.”

Her father, Lee Parton, was illiterate, Dolly loved and respected him, and often credits her sense of business to him. “Our sweet Daddy worked so hard for all of us,” she has said (Dolly was the fourth of 12 children, and Lee worked farming and construction jobs to feed the family). “At night we used to take turns rubbing Daddy’s cracked, hard-working hands with corn silk lotion and we soaked and washed his tired old feet.”

This ode to her father went far beyond just the song. “Daddy was a very smart man … but he was ashamed that he couldn't read or write — that bothered him,” Parton told Oprah Winfrey in 2020. “He felt like he couldn't learn after he was grown. I remember thinking, ‘I need to do something.’” That spark led her to found the Imagination Library in 1995, a nonprofit that provides free books to kids each month from birth until they start school. By 2018, the highly successful program reached a milestone by mailing its 100-millionth book. "My dad got to live long enough to see the Imagination Library doing well and the little kids calling me 'The Book Lady,’” she told Oprah. “He got such a kick out of that."

“Jolene” (1973)

While the 1973 Grammy Hall of Fame song is clearly a plea to another woman to not steal her partner, the namesake for the song was a child. “One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl — she was probably 8 years old at the time," Parton told NPR. “And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me for an autograph.” When the girl told her her name, Parton was immediately taken. “I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.’ I said, 'That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.’”

But the story itself was inspired by a bank teller — also a redhead — who clearly had her eyes on Parton’s husband, Carl Thomas Dean. “He just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us,” she admitted. But that was enough for her to write the 200 words of the lyrics that became one of her best-known hits.

“She had everything I didn't, like legs. She was about 6 feet tall and had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have,” Parton continued of the relatability of the song, which has since been covered by artists ranging from The White Stripes and Pentatonix to her own goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. “So no matter how beautiful a woman might be, you're always threatened by other women, period.” (Dolly and Dean have been married for over 50 years.)

“I Will Always Love You” (1974)

Arguably Parton’s most well-known song is the powerful “I Will Always Love You,” which topped Billboard Hot Country Charts in 1974 when she first released it and again in 1982 when it was retooled for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack. While the lyrics may evoke a ballad of a dying romance, the actual inspiration stemmed from the singer’s decision to leave The Porter Wagoner Show. “I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Porter’s show for five years. I had been there for seven,” she told CMT. “And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn. We both believed that we knew what was best for us.”

That tension sparked so much “grief and heartache” that she wrote the song “out of a very emotional place,” wanting to reflect the mixed emotion of “I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here,” she said. Parton took the song to Porter and played it — it left him in tears. They struck a new deal. She could leave, but he would get to produce the song.

But it was Whitney Houston who breathed new life into the track as the lead song for 1992’s blockbuster The Bodyguard soundtrack. “They asked me if they could use it and I forgot about it until I was driving home and I heard this voice come on the radio,” Parton recalled on The Graham Norton Show. “It was one of the most overwhelming feelings I have ever had to hear it done so well, so beautifully, and so big. She took it and made it so much more than what it would ever have been. It was such a joy as a songwriter. I don’t think I will have a bigger thrill, ever.” Houston’s still-inescapable version topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks and won two Grammys, including Record of the Year.

“Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (1977)

Parton’s professional separation from Wagoner wore on her mind so much that it sparked multiple songs — “Light of a Clear Blue Morning“ was one with a more hopeful look at the future and her new solo path. The opening lines capture that tension turned hope: “It's been a long dark night / And I've been a waitin' for the morning / It's been a long hard fight / But I see a brand new day a dawning.”

Inspiration for the track came to her while she was driving home from one of her final business meetings with Wagoner, according to her official site. “It was my song of deliverance,” she said. “It was my song of freedom, and I knew that God was in it. I knew that I was free. And when the Lord has set you free ‘Ye are free indeed.’”

The song first appeared on New Harvest… First Gathering in 1977, and then on the soundtrack of the 1992 movie Straight Talk and again on her 2003 album For God and Country. It has also become a favorite song for choirs.

“9 to 5” (1980)

When the opportunity to star in the 1980 workplace comedy 9 to 5 came up, Parton was hesitant to hop on board since her music career had been going so well. But once she heard that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were part of the project, she couldn’t say no. “That was one of the greatest times of my life,” she told Vanity Fair, recalling the days on Los Angeles’ Fox Studios lot. Her curiosity guided her as she absorbed everything about the workplace environment portrayed in the film, as well as the movie-making process. “I was really beginning to blossom as a human being,” she added.

As part of her foray into filmmaking, she made a deal that she would get to write and record the theme song. One day, while observing the set where she’d “pick up different stories,” she had an epiphany. “I have these acrylic nails and they sounded like a typewriter to me and it was all about secretaries,” she said. So in the evenings, she’d head back to her hotel room and take her guitar and string together her observations of the day.

At the end, she gathered all the women on set — from the actors to the behind-the-scenes crew — to the studio to sing the track, which included its trademark sound from Parton’s very own fingers. “I played my nails on a separate track and it says, ‘Nails by Dolly,’ which I think is funny,” she said.

“Islands in the Stream” (1983)

While the Bee Gees ruled the charts through the late 1960s and 1970s, the three Gibb brothers (Barry, Robin, and Maurice) also consistently wrote songs for other artists, including “If I Can’t Have You” for Yvonne Elliman, “Heartbreaker” for Dionne Warwick, and full album collaborations with Barbra Streisand. One of those successful songs was “Islands in the Stream,” though it wasn’t originally meant for Dolly. Barry Gibb was producing Kenny Rogers’s 1983 album Eyes That See in the Dark and gave him “Islands” to perform, but after four days, the country crooner felt it wasn’t for him. “I finally said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song anymore’ and he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton,’” Rogers told People in 2017.

As fate would have it, Parton was downstairs in the same studio and was totally game. “She came marching into the room, and once she came in and started singing the song was never the same,” Rogers told the magazine. “It took on a personality of its own.” Parton added in a Warner Music Nashville interview, “There was just something about my and Kenny’s chemistry.”

The duet became the second Hot 100 No. 1 for each artist (her “9 to 5” had hit the top spot in 1981 and his “Lady” had in 1980) and started a series of collaborations between the two, including “Real Love,” “Love is Strange,” and “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” While the two sometimes called each other “soul partners,” there was never any romance. “We’ve just flirted with each other for thirty years,” Rogers told Today.

“Shine On” (1998)

Parton’s 34th solo album, Hungry Again, was the beginning of a move back to her country and bluegrass roots after her foray on the pop charts. “I spent all last summer writing’ these songs,” she said at the time. “I went back to my old home place, wrote all those songs and they just came straight from my heart.”

But the track “Shine On” is perhaps the most emotional of the lot, as it was written as a tribute to her singing partner and friend Tammy Wynette, who passed away in 1998. Parton performed the song at Wynette’s memorial, bringing both humor and emotion to the ceremony. “We always had the worst hair,” Parton said during the memorial speech, remembering a conversation they shared when Wynette was in the hospital and asked Parton to do something with her “frog hair.” “I said, ‘But Tammy, I think that’s why God gave us talent, ’cause he screwed up our hair so bad.’” But she also brought it around to the heartful: “God certainly gave Tammy a great gift. She shined then, she’s shining now, and she’ll shine forevermore.”

“I Believe in You” (2017)

Parton doesn’t have any children of her own (“I didn't have children because I believed that God didn't mean for me to have kids so everybody's kids could be mine,” she told Oprah), but she’s long been dedicated to helping kids. Her Imagination Library is the largest and most wide-reaching effort, but she’s also donated millions to children’s pediatric hospitals, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and her Dollywood Foundation has been giving out scholarships to high school seniors in her home county of Sevier County, Tennessee since the late ‘80s. But it wasn’t until 2017 that she released her first children’s album — her 44th album overall.

“I’ve always wanted to, but it was one of those things where timing is everything,” she told One Country. When the 100,000,000th book was donated through the Imagination Library and her TV movies were doing well, she realized she was reaching young audiences. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do musically, so that was God’s way of saying, put that children’s album out.”

The lead track, “I Believe in You,” plays off of the spirit of the classic kids’ book The Little Engine That Could. “It’s got train sounds and whistles and ‘woo woo woo’ sounds,” Dolly explained to a group of kids. She made the encouraging song “I Believe in You” available for children to download for free.

Ultimately, Dolly’s eternally youthful attitude helped her channel the energy that children are so drawn to. “I have no trouble with kids,” she said. “I am a kid and they love me and I love them. We just kind of [draw together] like magnets. We just kind of fit together.”

“I Still Believe” (2020)

As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Parton started taking action, donating $1 million to fund vaccine research (which helped develop the viable Moderna vaccine), reading bedtime stories to children online, and releasing the song “When Life Gets Good Again” in May. But it was her holiday project that got the most attention, as she came out with her first holiday album since 1990’s Home for Christmas. “I’d been wanting to do another Christmas album for a long time and I had the time to do it since we were all holed up at home,” she said on Today. “So I started writing some of these original songs and I gathered up the old classics and grabbed a bunch of friends and we just kind of went for it.”

The standout song is actually a bonus track called “I Still Believe,” which instills hope in the face of a harrowing year with lyrics like, “I believe to my very core / We'll walk again in the sunshine / By the seashore / That we'll dance and we'll sing / And be happy again.”

Weeks before the release, she told Today: “We've just become so divided, because people just seem to love to hate. This is the Christmas season coming up, but we need to carry that Christmas spirit of peace on Earth and loving one another. We need to carry that into the new year.”

Photo credit: ROBYN BECK / Getty Images