'Jolene' by Dolly Parton: The making of the pleading country classic

16 September 2021, 17:00

Dolly Parton at Glastonbury
Dolly Parton at Glastonbury. Picture: Getty

By Mayer Nissim

In a genre packed with stories of begging and heartbreak, 'Jolene' maybe tops the lot.

Dolly Parton is an icon not just of country music, but of music full stop.

After releasing her first albums in the 1960s, she took the 1970s by the scruff of the neck (releasing SEVENTEEN albums during that decade alone) and became one of the biggest stars of the century.

Bang in the middle of her imperial phase came 'Jolene', taken from the album of the same name. But who wrote the song? And is it about a real person? Here's everything you need to know.

Who wrote 'Jolene'?

While many accomplished country stars have impressive careers just playing covers and standards, that was never Dolly Parton.

From her very earliest releases she was writing her own material, and 'Jolene' is all Dolly.

"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?"

What's more, Dolly wrote 'Jolene' on the very same day she wrote 'I Will Always Love You'.

Speaking on country radio talkshow the Bobby Bones Show in 2017, Dolly was asked about writing the song eventually made famous by Whitney Houston and The Bodyguard.

"In 1972, I think I wrote it. At the same time I wrote ‘Jolene.’ That was a good writing day.”

Really?!?

"Yeah, I believe so, it was right in that period of time because I remember all my paperwork, and like they came out pretty close at the same time. So everybody said, what was you taking, that was a good writing day."

Don't believe it? Even internet mythbusters Snopes have fact-checked this and found it to be completely true.

When was 'Jolene' released?

After it was recorded on May 22, 1973 in RCA Studio B in Nashville, Tennessee, 'Jolene' was released as a single on October 15, 1973.

It was backed by 'Love, You're So Beautiful Tonight'.

The song was the lead single and title track of the Jolene album, which came out on February 4, 1974.

Is 'Jolene' about a real person?

Jolene is about a married woman terrified that a beautiful, pale, auburn-haired and green-eyed woman will steal her other half, not because she loves him but just because she can.

But was there a real Jolene?

Throwing the celeb rulebook out the window, Dolly Parton got hitched before she was famous, marrying asphalt road paver Carl Thomas Dean on May 30, 1966 – and they've stayed together ever since, renewing their vows in 2016 to mark their FIFTIETH anniversary.

Speaking after performing 'Jolene' at Glastonbury in 2014, Dolly said: "Now, some of you may or may not know that that song was loosely based on a little bit of truth.

Read more: When Dolly Parton did an exquisite impression of Elvis Presley as a woman

"I wrote that years ago when my husband... was spending a little more time with Jolene than I thought he should be."

She added: "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."

She recently told The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon: "This woman I tell the story about, this girl that worked at the bank when we first got married, this beautiful redhead.

"And he's spending more time at the bank than we had money. And I thought, 'Well that ain't gonna work out too good.'"

Dolly added to NPR: "She had everything I didn't, like legs – you know, she was about 6 feet tall. And had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have.

"She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us.'

But that woman wasn't actually called Jolene (as far as we know). Dolly actually borrowed the name from an autograph-hunting fan who came up on stage.

"I got the name from a little girl that had come up to the stage for an autograph in my early, early career," Parton told Lydverket in 2008.

"And I said, 'you are the prettiest thing I've ever seen.' She had this red hair, green eyes and fair skin.

"And I said 'what is your name?' and she said 'Jolene'. "I said, 'I'm gonna write a song about you and if you ever hear it, you'll know it was about you'."

In 2006, a red-haired, green-eyed, nurse called Juline Whelan stepped forward and said that she may have been "Jolene", revealing that she met Dolly on a family trip to Disneyland when she was ten years old.

At the end of the show they said, 'Anybody that wants to come up on stage for an autograph, come up and get an autograph,' she told CBC.

"So I went over to Dolly Parton and got her autograph. Her getting my name as Jolene instead of Juline is totally normal for me, so I wouldn't have even questioned that."

How did 'Jolene' do in the charts?

'Jolene' is maybe Dolly Parton's best-known song, and is more than just a massive country hit – it's pretty much a pop standard these days and has gone platinum in the UK and gold in the US.

When it was released in 1973 it topped the Billboard Country Songs chart in the UKS and the Canada Country Singles chart, too.

It reached 44 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and made it to 60 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Over in the UK, the single eventually got a release in 1976 and soared to number 7 on the official chart.

Who has covered 'Jolene'?

Whitney Houston's version of 'I Will Always Love You' is the most successful cover of a Dolly Parton song, but she reckons 'Jolene' is her most covered song, and we can believe it

One of the earliest and best-known covers was by Grease star Olivia Newton-John, who recorded it for her 1976 album Come On Over.

Other standout covers over the years include Strawberry Switchblade's 1985 take on it and One Dove's 1993 version.

James Last made it his own in 1998, while Mindy Smith's from her album One Moment More made it on to a Dolly Parton Tribute album Just Because I'm a Woman and is Dolly's own favourite.

The White Stripes frequently covered the song live, and their 'Jolene (Live Under Blackpool Lights)' was even given a single release in 2004 and reached number 16 in the UK charts.

Dolly Parton's own goddaughter Miley Cyrus recorded a cover of the song in 2012 for The Backyard Sessions, racking up over 320 million YouTube views and counting.

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