Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors’: Story Behind the Song

by Emily Morgan
(Photo by Gems/Getty Images)

No other song exemplifies Dolly Parton’s keen ability to tell heartbreaking, profound stories like “Coat of Many Colors.”

Based on Parton’s childhood, she uses the song to reflect on a tender moment she shared with her mother, Avie Lee Parton. Growing up in rural Appalachia, Parton and her family didn’t have much to their name when it came to money. Despite this, Parton describes how her family never went without when it came to love.

Dolly Parton Pays Tribute to Her Mother in “Coat of Many Colors”

In the song’s moving narrative, Parton recounts when her mother took “a box of rags” someone had given her and worked tirelessly to sew them into a “coat of love” for her daughter.

Parton would forever etch this moment in time when she wrote “Coat of Many Colors” as well as her mother’s memory. From the early age of five, Parton began writing songs to tell stories about her humble upbringing. Since then, Parton has weaved her childhood memories into the fabric of her songwriting process, making her the worldwide success she’s known as today.

The Song’s Coincidental Origin

In 1969, Parton was no longer that little girl from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Instead, she found herself on tour for the first time with country music legend Porter Wagoner. The inspiration for “Coat of Many Colors” came to Parton as she was riding on the tour bus. As soon as the lyrics came to her, Parton ironically used the only paper she could find: Wagoner’s dry cleaning receipts from his designer coats.

“Coat of Many Colors” appears on Parton’s eighth solo studio album of the same name. In 1972, the CMA Awards nominated the record for “Album of the Year.” Parton has cited the title track on numerous occasions as her favorite of all the songs she wrote.

After the song’s subsequent success, Parton says, “I took the money back to Mama. I said, “Mama, this is about that little coat you made for me, and it’s been a hit, and I’ve got royalties. I wanna take you down to Knoxville … and I wanna buy you a new mink coat.”

In 2015, Parton’s true story behind the song was transformed into a made-for-television film. Watch it here.

Describing her mother’s impact on the song, Parton says, “‘Coat of Many Colors’ is always a sweet little song when I sing it. It depends on what’s going on in my life at the time, but that song affects me in so many different ways. I remember right after I lost Mama, several years ago, it was just so hard for me to sing that song. But now I have a sweet spirit in my heart, it kinda brings her back to us … I know these songs all touched my family as well, because they’re all about us.”