Dolly Parton: 10 of the best

Ahead of her Glastonbury set, here's a roundup of the queen of country's career highlights

See all our Glastonbury 2014 coverage here

1 Dumb Blonde

Although she didn’t write it, Dolly Parton’s breakthrough country hit from 1967 is the perfect introduction to the "beauty with brains" persona that would serve her so well for the next five decades. In an era when female country singers were largely cast as passive victims of circumstance, Parton’s breezy delivery of this proto-feminist hit was an early indication of her gifts as an interpretive singer. Giving her first major TV performance on the Porter Wagoner show in 1967 at the tender age of 21, she already looked every inch the star.

2 Just Because I’m a Woman

The title track from her second studio album is a sharper, angrier cousin to Dumb Blonde. Written in response to her husband’s negative reaction to learning she wasn’t a virgin before they met, the song points an accusing finger at the hypocritical expectations of many men at the time – considered a somewhat daring subject for the highly traditionalist US country scene. As ever though, Parton stops short of haranguing her audience – the song hints at the possibility of mutual understanding and reconciliation.

3 Coat of Many Colors

Throughout her career, Parton has drawn inspiration from her childhood in Tennessee. Essentially a description of grinding poverty and social isolation, Coat of Many Colors could easily come off as maudlin. Parton’s genius is to frame this sad tableau completely without bitterness. Her youthful protagonist seems unconcerned by the taunts she suffers from her schoolmates, drawing strength from the unconditional love of her mother. Sentimental? Absolutely – but at heart Coat of Many Colors is the story of a family on the precipice, holding themselves together in the only way they know how.

4 Jolene

The key to Jolene’s enduring appeal lies in its simplicity. From the sparse, faintly sinister arrangement to the desperate but strangely pragmatic lyrics, Parton’s best-loved and most-covered song paints a vivid picture of a woman fighting a battle she knows she’s already lost. “I had to have this talk with you/ My happiness depends on you/ And whatever you decide to do, Jolene” – the protagonist knows she can’t prevent her husband from leaving her, so her last line of defence is to appeal to the mercy of the other woman. The haunting, desolate pitch of the singer’s final note is shot through with despair, suggesting her pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

5 I Will Always Love You

Whitney Houston’s showboating rendition may have been the bigger hit, but it can’t touch the intimacy of Parton’s original. Bizarrely written about the end of a professional relationship (with her frequent duet partner and early champion Porter Wagoner) rather than a romantic one, nevertheless I Will Always Love You has endured as one of the all-time great breakup songs. There’s no self-pity or recrimination here, just a tender farewell from the perspective of somebody who understands that love alone isn’t always enough to make a relationship work.

6 The Bargain Store

An unfailingly sympathetic songwriter with a keen eye for detail, Parton’s character-study songs are sharply observed vignettes of lives shot through with disappointment and hardship, but always with a grain of hope. The Bargain Store caused controversy on its 1975 release when radio programmers took the lyrics as a thinly veiled metaphor for prostitution. However, that would be an overly simplistic reading of a song that speaks to the emotional compromises a woman is forced to make as the romantic dreams of youth give way to adult disillusionment.

7 9 to 5

By the late 70s Parton was a major star, enjoying hits on the pop and country charts. In the eighties she also moved into acting, scoring one of her greatest successes in the workplace comedy 9 to 5, in which she easily held her own alongside co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The iconic theme tune was her first (and to date only) No 1 on the American pop charts. Curiously, it never climbed higher than No 47 in the UK, but it remains one of her best-known songs, and will doubtless be a crowd-pleasing centrepiece of her forthcoming Glastonbury set.

8 Smoky Mountain Memories

In Parton’s songwriting, faith and family recur frequently as repositories of strength in difficult times. Of all her "Tennessee songs", Smoky Mountain Memories is perhaps the most soulful. A reflection on the hardships faced by poverty-stricken southern workers who travelled north in search of work and fortune, Parton routinely dedicates the song to the memory of her father.

9 Little Sparrow

Having spent much of the 90s in creative and commercial torpor, Parton experienced a critical rebirth around the turn of the century with a return to her bluegrass roots. Her 2001 album Little Sparrow is one of the best of her career, and she enlisted the likes of Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas to break her out of her overproduced country-pop comfort zone and bring her back to the roots music she was writing before Hollywood came calling. The title track – a reflective, gorgeously harmonised folk ballad about the perils of untrustworthy men – stands as one of her most accomplished recordings.

10 Down From Dover

A tragic tale of an unwed mother-to-be awaiting the return of her faithless lover, Down From Dover originally appeared on Parton’s 1970 album The Fairest of Them All, before being revisited for the Little Sparrow album in 2001. Parton’s voice – still as light and girlish in the rerecording as it was 30 years before – perfectly captures the naivety of the trusting protagonist and her rising despair as she realises the man she’s pinned her hopes on isn’t coming back for her. The tearjerking ballad may be something of a country music cliché, but this is Parton’s songwriting at its most humane and affecting.


John P Lucas

The GuardianTramp

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