By Bonnie Stiernberg, MusiCares
Before she’s honored as MusiCares’ 2019 Person Of The Year, brush up on the Leading Lady of Country’s most indelible hits
With a whopping 64 studio albums and a lifetime of witticisms under her belt, it can be tough to choose just one quote to summarize Dolly Parton. After all, her legendary 50+ year career stands among music’s finest—country or otherwise—and she’s enjoyed success across a variety of genres and media. (How many artists do you know who can say they’ve been nominated for 46 GRAMMYs, two Oscars, an Emmy and a Tony?)
But the one dose of Dolly wisdom that perhaps best encapsulates her is this: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” She’s built a career on daring to be herself, exuding bright confidence and boldly refusing to change despite coming up in an era and an industry that was especially harsh for women. When Monument Records signed her and wanted her to be a bubblegum pop singer, Parton stuck to her guns and insisted on country, and when she finally did cross over to pop a decade later, it was on her own terms.
In a couple weeks, the eight-time GRAMMY winner, who just celebrated her 73rd birthday, will be honored as the 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year. There’s still time to brush up on her catalog before then, though you’ll have your work cut out for you sifting through everything from “Islands in the Stream” to her excellent bluegrass albums. To help, we’ve whittled it down to her 10 most essential songs.
10. It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right
Released as a double A-side with “Two Doors Down” in 1978, this ode to a one-night stand topped the country charts just three years after another Parton song, “The Bargain Store,” was dropped from country radio for—in a lyrical misinterpretation—being too sexually suggestive. There’s nothing ambiguous about “It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right,” however; with lines like “I like your looks, I love your smile/Could I use you for a while?” and “My needs are very much alive/Is it okay if I stop by?” It’s a testament to her determination to ignore criticism, be true to herself and push the envelope. “I meant for it to be what it was,” she told Playboy that year. “You know, what people call making love to someone you’re not married to…Just how plain can I be?”
9. Just Because I’m a Woman
The title track from Parton’s 1968 Just Because I’m a Woman album is remarkable for its overt feminism, calling out the double standard women faced when it came to sex and relationships in an era when doing so—particularly in a country song—was frowned upon. The song stems from a real-life fight she had with her husband Carl after he asked if she’d been with anyone else before him and didn’t like the answer he got. “Now a man will take a good girl/And he’ll ruin her reputation/But when he wants to marry/Well, that’s a different situation,” she sings, before bolding declaring “I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand: my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.”
8. Two Doors Down
This track was a pop crossover hit, but it’s still classic Dolly: upbeat, resilient and irresistible. It begins with the narrator crying alone in her room before deciding to “dry these useless tears and get myself together” and join the party happening down the hall. Soon enough, she’s “dry-eyed, all smiles and talkin’, making conversation with the new love I have found.” One thing leads to another, and they eventually leave to go back to her place for a little party of their own. The message is clear: heartbreak is temporary, and happiness is waiting for you just two doors down.
7. Dumb Blonde
Released in 1967, “Dumb Blonde” was Dolly Parton’s first hit single, peaking at No. 24 on the country charts. Though it was one of the few she didn’t write herself (it was penned by Nashville songwriter Curly Putman), it was a perfect fit for her. Parton has spent nearly her entire life being judged by her appearance, and though her humor’s always been self-deprecating—as Willowdean Dixon recently said in Dumplin’, “she’s in on every joke you could possibly tell about her”—she has never felt the need to hide her razor-sharp wit. As she once famously quipped, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb…and I also know that I’m not blonde.” “Dumb Blonde” is a warning not to underestimate her. “Just because I’m blonde don’t think I’m dumb,” she declares, “Cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.”
6. My Tennessee Mountain Home
“My Tennessee Mountain Home” serves as the centerpiece to Parton’s 1973 concept album about her childhood in East Tennessee of the same name, and it’s full of gorgeous imagery: front porches, fireflies, summer wind, stolen kisses and honeysuckle vine. If you know anything about Dolly’s upbringing, you know that calling her Tennessee mountain home “modest” is an understatement, but the love and nostalgia she has for the place where “life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh” is beautiful to listen to.
5. 9 to 5
This working woman’s anthem was written for “9 to 5,” in which Parton made her film debut alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song as well as four GRAMMY nominations at the 24th Annual GRAMMY Awards. (She took home two—Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.) Driven by the percussive clacking of a typewriter (a part that Parton claims she wrote by tapping her acrylic nails against each other), “9 to 5” is about finding empowerment despite being unappreciated, and it obviously resonated. In 1981, it topped three different Billboard charts (Hot Country, Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary), and in 2017, it was certified platinum.
4. I Will Always Love You
In addition to being one of the most moving songs of all time, “I Will Always Love You” is shining example of Parton’s refusal to let anyone walk over her when it comes to her work. After seven years on The Porter Wagoner Show, she decided it was time to pursue a solo career, but she knew Wagoner—her longtime mentor and duet partner—would be hurt, so she penned the track as a way to explain her motivations for leaving. He was touched, but sued her for breach of contract anyway.
They eventually settled out of court, but Dolly was never shy about defending her choice to leave. In a 1995 roast, she cracked, “People have said that me and Porter fought over creative differences, and that’s true—I was creative, and Porter was different. I knew he had balls when he sued me for a million dollars when he was only paying me $30 a week.”
She had a No. 1 hit on the country charts with “I Will Always Love You” not once, but twice—once in 1974, and once in 1982—becoming the first female artist in history to top the charts twice with the same song. Elvis Presley wanted to record it, but his manager demanded she sign over half the publishing rights. She wisely refused, and then, as she says, “when Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland.”
3. Here You Come Again
Perhaps the pinnacle of Dolly’s pop crossover, “Here You Come Again” is another rare hit she didn’t write herself. It was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and originally recorded by B.J. Thomas, but Parton made it her own, reportedly insisting that steel guitar be added to it. That gamble helped her bridge the gap between country and pop, and it earned her both a No. 3 song on the Hot 100 and a GRAMMY for Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 21st Annual GRAMMY Awards.
2. Coat of Many Colors
Parton often cites “Coat of Many Colors” as her favorite song she’s written, and it’s arguably the best representation of the worldview of the woman who once said, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain.” She grew up in poverty in rural Tennessee, the fourth of 12 siblings living in a one-room cabin, but throughout her work, she recounts her childhood with love and gratitude. “Coat of Many Colors” tells the story of the time her mother made her a coat out of rags, and an excited young Dolly wore it to school, only to be taunted for it. “I could not understand it, for I felt I was rich/And I told them of the love my momma sewed in every stitch,” she sings, before eventually bringing it home with the moving moral of the story: “They didn’t understand it, and I tried to make them see/One is only poor if they choose to be/Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be/With my coat of many colors my momma made for me.”
Dolly Parton’s best-known song has been covered by everyone from The White Stripes to her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, but no one can compete with the pleading original. Inspired by a red-haired bank teller who was getting a little too flirty with her husband, Parton wrote the tale of a woman begging another woman not to steal her man and earned herself her second solo No. 1 on the country charts in 1973. With its haunting melody, iconic guitar lick and deeply relatable theme, “Jolene” is a standout. Even though it’s one of her heavier tracks, like almost everything she’s done, Parton is able to see the humor in it. In real life, that friendly bank teller became “kind of like a running joke between us,” she once said. “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.'”
The 2019 MusiCares Person Of The Year tribute to Dolly Parton will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Feb. 8, 2019, two nights prior to the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards, which air on Sunday, Feb. 10 on CBS.