The Story of... 'Jolene' by Dolly Parton

9 April 2024, 12:01

Dolly Parton performs Jolene
Dolly Parton performs Jolene. Picture: Dolly Parton/YouTube

By Tom Eames

In the history of country music, few songs have captured the imagination quite like Dolly Parton’s haunting ballad, 'Jolene'.

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Released in 1973, the song’s pleading lyrics and Dolly Parton’s emotive delivery tell the story of a woman confronting Jolene, a stunningly beautiful woman, whom she fears will steal away her lover.

The song’s story, rich with vulnerability and a touch of the autobiographical, has resonated with audiences for decades, making it one of Dolly's most enduring hits.

Let's delve into the song’s creation, its impact, and the real-life encounter that inspired this timeless classic.

The reason I think the song 'Jolene' has resonated with so many people for so long is because most of us have actually had a Jolene or a Joe in our lives at one time or another. But more importantly, we've all felt insecure about something. We've all felt like we might lose someone we love to someone else because we're not good enough, and that's what this song's really about.

- Dolly Parton, Dolly Parton's Heartstrings
  1. Who wrote 'Jolene' and when was it released?

    Dolly Parton interview: 40 years of Islands in the Stream and writing 'Jolene'

    The iconic song 'Jolene' was written and recorded by country music legend Dolly Parton.

    It was released on October 15, 1973, as the first single and title track from her album of the same name.

    Dolly amazingly wrote 'Jolene' in the same few days as the album's other iconic track, 'I Will Always Love You'.

    "I found them on the same cassette tape. Now it could have been a day or two apart, but it was during that same period of time and they're both actually on the Jolene album," she told Smooth Country.

    "They are on the same record and so I must have thought those were two really good songs.

    "So I'm sure it had to be within that week where I had them on the cassette because sometimes I write and then a day or two go by before I put something else down. But yeah, they were written within the same period of time."

  2. What is the song about?

    Dolly Parton - Jolene (1974).

    'Jolene' is a song that tells the story of a woman’s plea to another woman named Jolene, asking her not to take her man just because she can.

    Dolly describes Jolene’s beauty and her own fears, but also appeals to her sense of decency.

    The song is notable for its direct narrative style and emotional honesty, as it captures the feelings of jealousy and insecurity that can arise in a relationship. It’s a powerful expression of vulnerability and a plea for compassion, set to a memorable melody that has made it a classic in country music.

  3. What inspired 'Jolene'?

    Album Cover For "Jolene" Dolly Parton
    Album Cover For "Jolene" Dolly Parton. Picture: Getty

    The inspiration behind Dolly Parton’s song 'Jolene' comes from two separate encounters.

    The title was inspired by a young fan named Jolene whom Dolly met after a concert.

    "She had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding [out] for an autograph," Dolly told NPR in 2008.

    "I said, 'Well, you're the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?' And she said, 'Jolene.' And I said, 'Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.'"

    The story within the song was influenced by a red-headed bank teller who had a crush on Dolly's husband, Carl Dean.

    Dolly noticed the attention her husband received from the teller and, although she wasn’t threatened, it became a running joke between them. This combination of a memorable name and a personal experience gave birth to the song’s narrative

    Recalling the story during her performance at Glastonbury 2014, she said: "Now, some of you may or may not know that that song was loosely based on a little bit of truth. I wrote that years ago when my husband was spending a little more time with Jolene than I thought he should be.

    "I put a stop to that. I got rid of that redhead woman in a hurry.

    "I want you folks to know, though, that something good can come from anything. Had it not been for that woman I would never have written 'Jolene' and I wouldn't have made all that money, so thank you, Jolene."

  4. How did it perform in the charts?

    Dolly Parton’s 'Jolene' performed impressively in the charts. It became her second solo number-one single on the country charts after its release in October 1973, reaching the top position in February 1974.

    The song was also a moderate pop hit and a minor adult contemporary chart entry.

    In the UK, 'Jolene' became Dolly's first top ten hit, reaching number seven in the UK Singles Chart in 1976.

    The song’s popularity was reignited when Parton performed at the Glastonbury festival in 2014, leading to a re-entry in the charts.

  5. Who has covered 'Jolene'?

    Miley Cyrus - The Backyard Sessions - "Jolene"

    There have been many covers and versions of 'Jolene' over the years.

    Pentatonix released a cover of the song with Dolly Parton herself in September 2016. When this version entered the Top 20 of the Country chart, Dolly became the first artist with Top 20 hits in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s and '10s.

    When Dolly Parton was honoured with MusiCares Person Of The Year award at the Grammy Awards in 2019, she performed this song with her honorary Goddaughter, Miley Cyrus.

    Folk singer Mindy Smith had her big break when she recorded a darker version for the 2003 Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I'm A Woman. Dolly was a big fan of her version and appeared in the music video in a duet.

    Beyoncé - JOLENE (Official Lyric Video)

    Beyoncé covered 'Jolene' on her 2024 album Cowboy Carter, but with a twist. Instead of the pleading tone of the original version, Beyoncé rewrote the lyrics with a more confrontational style. The album also included a special guest appearance by Dolly, who lends her voice to an introductory spoken word piece titled 'Dolly P'.

    Other covers over the years include The White Stripes, Olivia Newton-John, Strawberry Switchblade and Lil Nas X.