Dolly Parton: her 30 best songs

Martin Chilton
Dolly Parton has released 47 solo albums to date

Dolly Parton, who was the subject of a star-studded tribute at the Grammys on Sunday night, is one of the most celebrated singer-songwriters in country music. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001, has twice been nominated for best song at the Oscars, and has nine Grammys to her name.

Here's our guide to her 30 best songs, starting at No 30...

30. Dumb Blonde (1967)

Dumb Blonde, from the album Hello, I’m Dolly, was one of Parton’s first hits. It was written by Nashville songwriter Curly Putman, who also penned Green, Green Grass of Home. Parton appeared regularly on The Tonight Show and on one occasion, host Johnny Carson asked her how she felt when people called her a “dumb blonde”. She replied: “Well Johnny, it don’t bother me for two reasons. One, I know I’m not dumb. And two, I know I’m not a blonde!”

29. Put it Off Until Tomorrow (1968)

This track showed the early promise of Parton as a songwriter. Written as a teenager, Put it Off Until Tomorrow was originally composed for Bill Phillips (Parton sang uncredited harmony vocals on his top-10 1966 recording) before she signed to work with Porter Wagoner’s band and appear on his weekly television show. The song appeared on their first duet album, 1968’s Just Between You and Me. Parton played with Wagoner until February 1974, when she bought her way out of the contract for £500,000.

In 2008, Parton told the Los Angeles Times that the two had begun to clash badly, adding: “I don’t mean this in a bad way… but he was very much a male chauvinist pig. He was in charge, and it was his show, but he was also very strong-willed. That’s why we fought like crazy, because I wouldn’t put up with a bunch of stuff.”

Parton in 1965
28. We Three Kings (1990)

There is a lot of Dolly Parton Christmas material about. She did a festive duet album with Kenny Rogers, sang harmony on Emmylou Harris’s Christmas album Light of the Stable, and then recorded her own one in 1990, Home for Christmas. There are jolly versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells, but the best track on the album is We Three Kings, Parton’s version of the carol We Three Kings of Orient Are, written by American John Henry Hopkins Jnr in 1857. It’s a delight.

27. Here You Come Again (1977)

In the mid-Seventies, Parton was searching for a wider pop audience. She recorded a composition by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil that had originally been written for Brenda Lee, who had decided not to record it. Here You Come Again was a triumph for Parton, topping the US Country singles chart and winning the 1979 Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Significantly, it also made it to number three on the Billboard 100. Al Perkins plays steel guitar on the track, and the album Here You Come Again also has the catchy track Two Doors Down, plus a version of a wonderful Kenny Rogers song called Sweet Music Man.

Parton in 1976 Credit: Armando Pietrangeli/Rex
26. Farther Along (1987)

Parton has always been a great collaborator, and one of her finest works is the 1987 album Trio, with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The album sold more than four million copies and won two Grammy awards. There’s a beautiful cover of a traditional southern gospel song called Farther Along, which was written in 1911 by a preacher called WA Fletcher.

25. Peace Train (1996)

Parton has never been afraid to cover classic songs in her own innovative style. She has recorded a fast bluegrass version of Help! by The Beatles, and has also produced versions of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. In 1996, she recorded a vibrant version of the 1971 Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) song Peace Train, accompanied by South African singers Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on her fine album of covers Treasures. It’s joyous.

24. Daddy Come and Get Me (1970)

Parton was the fourth of 12 children of Robert Lee Parton, a tobacco farmer, and his wife Avie Lee. “My family was very musical. My grandfather was a wonderful writer, and he was also a minister. But he used to write some of the most beautiful songs. All my uncles wrote, my mother wrote, played the guitar and sang, my grandma wrote.” In 1970, on the album The Fairest of Them All, Parton and her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope co-wrote the haunting song Daddy Come and Get Me, about a woman placed in a mental home by her cheating husband. 

23. In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) (1969)
Parton at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1972

Parton often talks about her poverty-stricken upbringing. And the singer who went on to own 15 properties spread out between Tennessee and California reflected on that wryly in her 1969 song In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad), which includes the lines:

No amount of money could buy from me,

The memories that I have of then,

No amount of money could pay me,

To go back and live through it again.

22. Appalachian Memories (1983)

Parton once admitted that “when I think back to my childhood, it’s like we were in the Dark Ages”. But she drew strength from her past for the touching Appalachian Memories. The song appeared on her 1983 album, her 25th solo one, called Burlap & Satin.

21. Little Sparrow (2001)

This was the title song of one of Parton’s finest albums this century. She sings as well as ever, on an album featuring the cream of Southern bluegrass musicians – dobro master Jerry Douglas and guitarist Bryan Sutton among them. Little Sparrow is a subtle, reflective song.

20. Just Because I’m a Woman (1968)

Apparently, this was Parton’s response to a conversation she had with her husband about how many lovers they’d had in the past. “My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman,” she first sang in 1968. She re-recorded the song for a tribute album, called Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton, which featured contributions from Alison Krauss, Kasey Chambers, Sinéad O’Connor and Allison Moorer.

19. Islands in the Stream (1983)
Parton and Rogers performing together in 1983

This was a massive duet hit for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. When I interviewed Rogers before his 2013 Glastonbury Festival appearance, he recalled: “Islands was a huge song for me. It was originally written by the Bee Gees for Marvin Gaye but then they asked me to do it as part of a whole album. I sang it in rehearsals for four days and then said to Barry Gibb, ‘I don’t even like it any more’. He said he had just run into Dolly Parton and would ask her to sing with me. I love working with Dolly and I give her full credit because that song was one of my career-making ones. The Bee Gees were so good at writing on the upbeat. It’s just a happy song and I still do it live, singing both parts and trying to sound like Dolly.”

In 2005 the song topped Country Music Television’s poll of the best country duets of all time, and it has sold more than three million copies worldwide. Graham Norton chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs selections.

18. The Grass is Blues (1999)

Love song The Grass is Blue was the title track from Parton’s 35th studio album, which won the 2001 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Norah Jones covered the song, and Dolly Parton went on to record with Jones on the song Creepin’ In, which won a Best Country Collaboration award. Jones said of Parton: “Her energy is just so great. She has an incredible voice. It’s so high and girly but also very strong at the same time.”

17. Down from Dover (1967)

This is the sorrowful tale of a pregnant teenager who’s rejected by her lover and his family. In 2008, Parton told Mojo magazine: “When I wrote that – Lord, so many years ago, the mid-Sixties, I guess – I knew a lot of young girls getting pregnant, and usually in the mountains people would pretty much turn you out: you were trash and a whore and your daddy and mama wouldn’t let you come home, so you’d have to go to some home for unwed mothers or a relative would take you in. I’m touched by everything, and that used to bother me: how cruel and awful must that be, how lonely they must feel. That was great fodder for a song: it came to me as a story, like writing a movie.”

16. Light of a Clear Blue Morning (1977)

From the 1977 album New Harvest, First Gathering, this is one of Parton’s most optimistic songs. It’s about deliverance from bad times, and was written after the end of a bitter legal wrangle with former collaborator Porter Wagoner. The song was later covered by Glen Campbell.

Parton with US President Jimmy Carter in 1979
15. Touch Your Woman (1971)

This slow-paced ballad reached number six on the country singles chart despite being banned by a number of radio stations’ playlists for being too sexually explicit. Parton’s lyrics seem tame today:

And when the busy day is done,

You lay by my side,

You know exactly what it takes to keep me satisfied,

You know exactly what I need, 

And I always go to sleep in peace. 

Margie Joseph later recorded an R&B cover of the song.

14. Shattered Image (1976)

“I’ve always prided myself as a songwriter more than anything else,” Parton told American Songwriter. “That’s my personal feelings. That’s not to say that’s what I do best. That’s my way of speaking for myself and speaking for life the way I see it. It’s an ability that I have and I’ve always loved being able to express myself.”

Shattered Image was on the 1976 album All I Can Do, and came at a time when she was appearing in the American tabloids frequently. “Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash,” she sings.

13. The Bargain Store (1975)

This was another Parton song banned by radio stations for suggestive lyrics ("Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise/ And I can guarantee you'll be completely satisfied"), but it didn’t stop it reaching the top of the Country singles chart in April 1975. Parton said of her lyric writing: "I look for a song that I can sing, that the chorus structure is something I can sing, not being a trained singer. I look for subjects that I understand and that make sense to me."

Parton in 1987
12. The Seeker (1976)

This touchingly spiritual song, from Parton’s 17th solo album, Dolly, has been covered by a diverse group that includes Shelby Lynne, Nelly Furtado and Merle Haggard. Parton herself once described its lyrics as being “my talk with God”.

11. Mule Skinner Blues (1970)

Mule Skinner Blues, also known as Blue Yodel No 8, was written by Jimmie Rodgers and George Vaughan and originally released in 1930. The song, like Apple Jack and Preacher Tom, was a chance to show off Parton’s bluegrass and traditional country skills. Her version earned a Grammy nomination.

10. To Daddy (1976)

This mournful song, about a heartbroken wife seen through the eyes of her child, was a big hit for Emmylou Harris, who recorded the song for her 1977 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. Parton’s rendition of the song, recorded in 1976, was not released until 1995.

In her book The Words and Music of Dolly Parton, she recalled: “I wrote To Daddy for myself but I freely gave it away to Emmylou. We were going to put it out as a single and Porter Wagoner and I got in a real fight over it. That is when I realised how seriously I took myself as a songwriter, and that my songwriting was even more important than my singing. Emmylou came over and begged for that song and Porter told her ‘No, that's Dolly’s next single’. And I said, ‘No, you can have it.”

9. My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973)

Parton said that “songwriting comes as naturally to me as breathing”, which is evident in her wistful 1973 song My Tennessee Mountain Home, which begins:

Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon,

In a straightback chair on two legs, leaned against the wall.

Watch the kids a’playin’ with June bugs on a string,

And chase the glowin’ fireflies when evenin’ shadows fall.

In my Tennessee mountain home,

Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh.

In my Tennessee mountain home,

Crickets sing in the fields near by.

8. 9 to 5 (1980)

Parton wrote 9 to 5 for the comedy film of the same name in which she made her big screen debut. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin also starred; Parton played secretary Doralee Rhodes. “Women have got a long way to go,” said Parton in 2010, “but I really think we’ve made a lot of great strides since Jane Fonda starred in 9 to 5. I felt I was part of a whole new movement, especially in the workplace.” The song won the 1981 People’s Choice Award for Favourite Motion Picture Song, and two 1982 Grammy Awards, for Country Song of the Year and Female Country Vocal of the Year.

7. My Blue Tears (1971)

It’s only two minutes and 16 seconds long, but this is a sweetly sad and memorable bluegrass song. Parton recorded an acoustic demo version that is worth seeking out, too; later, she re-recorded it for the 2001 album Little Sparrow, slowing the tempo down.

6. Joshua (1970)

This was the first Parton single to reach number one on the US Country charts. It’s both a sweet love song and a subversive tale of support for a loner and kindred spirit. “I think to be a true songwriter, you have to really allow yourself to feel and allow yourself the freedom to write it the way you want to,” Parton said.

5. Blue Ridge Mountain Boy (1969)

This is a classic early Dolly Parton love song. It’s also the title track on an album that contains versions of Joe South’s Games People Play and In the Ghetto.

4. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind (1973)

Parton has done many versions of this beautiful song, including one with the late, great country guitarist Chet Atkins. She did a duet version with Randy Travis, too. It’s a simple and sweet tale of lost love; Parton occasionally sings it a capella in concerts.

3. I Will Always Love You (1974)

Parton famously turned down a request from Elvis Presley to record a version of I Will Always Love You, because he wanted 50 per cent of the rights. It proved a wise decision, because when it was picked for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, it proved to be a massive hit for Whitney Houston and continues to provide big royalty cheques for Parton. Her own country version is lovely, and she recorded a second version for the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in which she starred alongside Burt Reynolds. (I Will Always Love You should not be confused with a 1967 Parton song about a man from Texas, called I’ll Oil Wells Love You.) 

2. Coat of Many Colours (1971)

Parton stopped performing this song for a time after her mother Avie Lee died in 1983, because she said it was too painful to sing. She now usually introduces it with the words “this is a true story about a little patchwork coat my Momma made me from a box of rags”. The original coat is kept in a glass case at the Dollywood Museum in Tennessee. The song is a gorgeous ode to love and family values.

1. Jolene (1973)

Jolene has been covered by more than 30 singers, but Parton’s original version remains untouchable.

 

Parton said: “One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl – she was probably eight at the time. And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph. 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.’ I said, ‘That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’”

The song was also, she later admitted, a well-aimed kick at a bank assistant who was taking rather too much interest in her husband. “Jolene is really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one,” she said. It was a popular choice for her 2014 Glastonbury set.