Dolly Parton’s Hit ‘Jolene’: Story Behind the Country Classic

by Jennifer Shea

By now, most people can hum the melody to Dolly Parton’s hit song “Jolene.” But less well-known than the song itself is the story of how it came to be.

Parton released the song in 1973, and it quickly became a hit single. But “Jolene” also stood the test of time and went on to become one of the singer’s favorites. As Good Housekeeping reports, when Parton was working on the eight-part anthology “Heartstrings,” she devoted an entire episode to “Jolene,” asking two actresses to play out the story behind the song.

Two stories behind Parton’s song

And as for what that story was, Parton has explained that its origins have two parts. One half of the story is totally innocent. It began early on in Parton’s career when she was on a country music television show. After each show, Parton would give out autographs.

“One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl — she was probably 8 years old at the time,” Parton told NPR. “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 other half of the story? Well, Parton once had to jockey with a redheaded bank teller for her husband’s attention. And she didn’t much care for the competition.

“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.’”

Standing the test of time

Over the years, the song has been covered by Miley Cyrus, The White Stripes, Mindy Smith, Olivia Newton-John and The Sisters of Mercy.

It contains only 200 words, but the tune has been nominated for a Grammy three times, finally winning for Best Country Duo/Group Performance in 2017.