Dolly Parton’s 10 Greatest Songs of All Time
Dolly Parton may be viewed by some as a country music sellout, given the heavy pop leanings of much of her career, all vocal hooks and overproduction in stark contrast to the stripped-back storytelling of her early days. Even throughout her less country material, however, the big-haired icon has hung onto her roots in ways that mattered, bringing her evocative and original voice as both a singer and working-class lyricist to add a touch of southern legitimacy to even her most painfully plastic records. Her pop-country hybrid blended the two genres in a way that worked, though it undoubtedly inspired more than a few lousy imitators, and most of her songs stand the test of time remarkably. Let’s celebrate the lengthy career of a legend.
1. “I Will Always Love You”
For many, “I Will Always Love You” is a song that will always belong to late, great singer Whitney Houston, although Dolly Parton made it famous on two occasions before Houston covered it. Her version is an entirely different kind of triumph, more warbly and tragic with a lonesome harmonica to complement a song that was first written as a farewell to Parton’s early duet partner Porter Wagoner. Perhaps that connection explains the timeless emotion emanating from Parton’s voice in her every version of this classic tune.
2. “9 to 5”
“9 to 5” was the title song from the comedy film where Parton made her acting debut, holding her own as a campy fun presence alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The song endured beyond the film, however, earning Dolly an Oscar nod for best original song and two Grammy wins. Though the chugging horns and easy singalong chorus push the song further into straight pop territory than most Parton songs, her lyrical focus on working class frustrations within a system that favors the rich recall her country roots to give this catchy gem some real substance.
3. “Coat of Many Colors”
A classic country acoustic riff underscores one of Dolly’s greatest and most moving hits, a 1971 ballad that’s little more than a moving, wonderfully specific story of a hard-luck family doing their best with what they have and being proud of their loving family, if not their economic standing. The specificity, of course, is all the more touching to know it comes from Dolly’s real life mother, who stitched her daughter a coat of rags while telling her the biblical story of Joseph and his own coat of many colors.
Dolly Parton’s first number one single on the American country charts is also one of her best. Before success made Parton’s music a touch more commercialized, she was a big-haired storyteller with a big voice and a knack for humorous talk-singing that could rival Johnny Cash’s on “A Boy Named Sue.” The song is packed with great singing and impressive guitar-picking while the lyrics are a quietly subversive love song about two people bound to each other by loneliness.
For all the fun country ditties she penned and sang, Parton’s signature and likely best song will always remain the haunting title track from her magnum opus LP Jolene. The song is a heartbreaking and original plea to a flirtatious woman tempting the narrator’s husband away from her. Judging by the warbling, moving vocals of Parton’s chorus, the narrator is desperate to keep her man away from this fearsome romantic rival, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the same flurry of tough emotions while listening to this evocative downbeat anthem.
6. “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right”
Contrary to popular belief, country music doesn’t always have to be conservative, as Dolly Parton proves with likely her most sexualized song to reach the top of the charts. “It’s All Wrong” concerns a woman who calls up another man for the express purpose of “using” him to help satisfy her own needs. Despite the risque and even touchingly honest lyrical themes, Parton turns the song into a rousing country ballad with all the lofty weight and orchestral flourishes of a gospel classic, turning a booty call into something beautiful.
7. “My Blue Tears”
A deep cut Dolly has re-recorded several times throughout her long career, “My Blue Tears” is a two minute testament to Dolly’s ability to craft a simple yet irresistible country ballad before elevating it to a new level with her vocal melodies. Her iconic vocals are at their usual peak on the Coat of Many Colors version of “Blue Tears,” and the sad, bluegrass-tinged song makes an indelible impression in such a short time.
8. “Here You Come Again”
One of the hits that made Dolly one of pop music’s biggest name, the 1977 ballad “Here You Come Again” is a prime example of Parton’s ability to combine ’70s pop production with country sensibilities, a rare talent many have tried and failed to imitate in the years since. The gorgeous orchestras combine with Dolly’s singing to make a wondrous pop melody, adorned with just enough steel guitar to please country purists.
9. “The Pain of Loving You”
Like female country’s answer to, the 1987 album Trio is a must-listen if only to hear three of country’s most commanding presences working together. Parton re-recorded a Wagoner collaboration for the album with fellow first ladies of country Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, making for a ballad filled with some of the most achingly beautiful three-part harmonies you’ll ever hear. Each singer brings their own degree of heartbroken pathos, elevating an already-great song to an all-timer for all three of their illustrious careers.
10. “Down From Dover”
Despite her sunny smile and penchant for easily-digestible pop country, Dolly Parton also knew how to pen country songs that were unforgiving in their bleakness. “Down from Dover” may be the epitome of Parton’s underrated gifts as a downbeat storyteller, following an unwed pregnant girl booted from her own home and left waiting for a baby-daddy who will never arrive to take her away. And it gets worse. Shimmering acoustic and bass guitars mix with mournful steel guitar and dazed backup vocals all combine in what may be one of the most heartbreaking country songs of all-time — and that’s saying something.