One of Dolly Parton’s biggest hits is “Jolene,” a song where she begs the title character not to steal her man away. On Parton’s A&E biography, a lot of time is devoted to talking about how such a simple song became such a big hit and also who the song is about. Here’s what we know.
Jolene Is a Real Woman
Parton has been candid many times over the years about “Jolene’s” origin. There is concert footage where she tells the audience, “I wrote this song about 20 years about this woman down in Nashville who worked at the bank. She was trying to take care of my husband while I was out on the road. Well, that didn’t go over too big with me. I fought that redheaded woman like a wildcat. She jerked my wig off and almost beat me to death with it. But I kept my husband. I got that sucker home and I beat the tar outta him,” said Parton, laughing.
She then turned to the audience and quipped, “We got a whole bunch of redheaded women down here. As a matter of fact, Jolene looked a whole lot like you, you redheaded hussy,” as she pointed to one woman down in front.
But Her Name Wasn’t Jolene
In a 2008 NPR interview, Parton admitted she changed the name of the woman for the song. The song is actually named after an 8-year-old fan of Parton’s.
“One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl — she was probably 8 years old at the time,” Parton said. “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 Hits On So Many Levels
Despite being a relatively simple song — it only has 200 words and the melody line is nothing too complicated — music fans across all genres love how it hits on multiple levels.
In Parton’s A&E biography, guitarist Jerry Douglas says, “‘Jolene’ was probably Dolly’s first crossover song because it had what we call the hook … it’s a gut-string guitar, it’s a classical guitar. It’s not a steel-string guitar, that also adds to the way you hear the guitar.”
Parton herself tries to downplay how good the song is, saying, “That little guitar sound is as clever as the little song itself. Just singin’ over and over ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,’ it’s like how hard can it be? … it’s not like I’m a genius or nothin.”
But 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry begs to differ. She breaks it down thusly:
“There’s a few things going on. One, that riff instantly is the hook, but oh wait a minute — there’s a whole other hook because right when you hear that riff, you go right into ‘Jolene, Jolene.’ The arrangement — and in that time, you’re not used to hearing the chorus start off the song and then is that verse? Is that a pre-chorus? I’m confused, what’s going on here, but it doesn’t matter because every single part is hooking. And then forget about all that, put the story in there — Jolene, just that name is amazing,” says Perry.
Singer Kylie Minogue adds, “‘Jolene’! I can see Jolene walking down the street, I can see Dolly bristling. Yeah, it’s a real art of storytelling, how to say a lot and paint a picture in three and a half minutes.”
Parton does admit that it’s a song that “fits a lot of people” and that’s probably what made it so successful.
“We all are insecure. There’s always somebody that could take that person from you and you’re vulnerable.”
The Dolly Parton A&E biography airs Sunday, April 12 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., followed by Willie Nelson: American Outlander, a special concert that pays tribute to Nelson’s seven-decades-long career.