On Oct. 15, 1973, Dolly Parton released her now-classic song “Jolene.” The No. 1 song (as of February of 1974) wasn’t her first to reach the country charts’ highest peak, but it did help launch one of her most successful years to date, as she followed up “Jolene” with two more chart-toppers: “I Will Always Love You” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly.”
A funny thing’s happened in the last 45-plus years, however: “Jolene” has become Parton’s most popular song by far. It’s been streamed more than 147 million times on Spotify (her second-most-spun song, “9 to 5,” is only at 106 million streams) and become a ubiquitous part of popular culture. A Jessica Chastain-starring film — based on an E. L. Doctorow story “Jolene: A Life” — premiered in 2008, while Parton’s Netflix series, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, also features an episode based around the song. Parton even fit the track into the popular “distracted boyfriend” meme.
The number of “Jolene” covers is also truly staggering. Unsurprisingly, multiple country musicians have tackled the song (to name a few, Olivia Newton-John, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Margo Price, and Alison Krauss). Pop acts such as Miley Cyrus and Ellie Goulding have also covered the tune, as have Patti Smith, the White Stripes and dozens of other rock and electronic acts. Parton herself has also re-done the song multiple times: In 2003, she and Melissa Etheridge teamed up on CMT Crossroads; in 2017, Parton and a cappella sensations Pentatonix released a studio version; and, in 2018, she recorded a strings-heavy version for the Dumplin’ soundtrack.
Parton has released more than 60 albums and has amassed dozens of indelible singles. So why has “Jolene” in particular risen to the top and become her most iconic song?
A major part of it is the narrator, who is an extremely sympathetic figure. The unnamed woman feels inadequate next to Jolene’s beauty (“Your beauty is beyond compare”) and is despondent over her man’s wandering eye. “I can easily understand / How you could easily take my man / But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene,” Parton sings, a desperate hint to her voice. Betrayal is one of the most painful feelings to experience, especially when it comes from a loved one (just ask anyone who’s been cheated on). Near the end of the song, when Parton calls out “Jolene!” in a higher register, the palpable mix of horror, anguish and fear stands out.
Parton’s personal investment in the song also makes these lyrics more relatable. As she shared with NPR in 2008, the song was inspired (at least in part) by her husband Carl Dean’s innocent flirtation with a bank teller. “She got this terrible crush on my husband,” Parton said. “And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us, when I was saying, ‘Hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank. I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money.’ So it’s really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one.”
Indeed, perhaps “Jolene” is also so appealing because it’s open-ended — a choose-your-own-subtext song. While we know how upset the song’s protagonist is, we’re not quite sure how her story ends. In the final verse, Parton sings, “I had to have this talk with you / My happiness depends on you,” but leaves it open to interpretation what kind of conversation this was — Polite? Threatening? Kind but firm? The continuation of that thought — “And whatever you decide to do, Jolene …” — doesn’t illuminate much, as it too can be read as breezy, a stern warning shot or downright passive-aggressive. Whether the suspected affair was consummated or averted is also in question, which adds further mystery.
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This ambiguity has led to intriguing creative responses that flesh out the story and give Jolene agency. In a 2013 interview, Jennifer Nettles noted the similarities between her song “That Girl” — which is about a woman who tells a complete stranger that her boyfriend is a cheater — and “Jolene.” “I looked at [co-writer Butch Walker] and said, ‘This should really be called “The Ballad of Jolene” in parentheses,'” Nettles shares. “All we hear from Dolly is her one perspective as the narrator. But what if Jolene doesn’t want to take her man just because she can? We never know. And I thought that would be so interesting to tell that other part of the story.”
Cam‘s “Diane,” meanwhile, is from the perspective of remorseful Jolene, who is aghast when she finds out she’s the other woman. “With songwriting, you get to create a reality that you want and, in this case, the other woman didn’t know the man was married, but now she’s doing the right thing by coming forward and apologizing,” Cam told The Orange County Register in 2017.
“It’s the reverse of what Dolly did, but I definitely feel that Dolly has done such a good job with keeping that so vulnerable, she’s pleading with the other woman instead of being angry and that’s what’s similar in “Diane,”” Cam adds. “I didn’t want it to be angry or about slut-shaming or bashing other women. I wanted it to be empowering, like people sticking together by telling the truth and having that integrity.”
From a musical standpoint, “Jolene” also lends itself to malleability. The original version puts Parton’s proud warble at the forefront, atop genial acoustic guitar augmented by occasional whispers of pedal steel and strings. To Parton, the simplicity of the song is a big plus. “It’s a great chord progression — people love that “Jolene” lick,” Parton told NPR in 2008. “It’s as much a part of the song almost as the song. And because it’s just the same word over and over, even a first-grader or a baby can sing, ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.’ It’s like, how hard can that be?”
That basic foundation is key. Although “Jolene” is effective on its own as a galloping folk song, it’s skeletal enough to also function as a blueprint or guiding sketch, meaning musicians can put their own stamp on the bare-bones structure. It has also made the song timeless; in fact, there’s nothing in the production or instrumentation to tie it to a particular era or musical movement.
This fact, most of all, is why “Jolene” endures: In less than three minutes, Parton hinted at a cocktail of mixed emotions — jealousy, anger, sadness, fright — that to this day captures the complicated dimensions of the human condition.
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