Dolly Parton’s new Netflix series Heartstrings features an episode fittingly called “Jolene,” named after what is perhaps Dolly’s most famous song.
In the episode, Julianne Hough is the actress who plays the titular character, Jolene. Kimberly Williams Paisley and Dallas Roberts also star in the Jolene episode. The Heartstrings series brings 8 of Parton’s most famous songs to life in different episodes.
“They’re just stories put to music,” Parton says in the series trailer. “They’re songs that I’ve written. They’re stories of my life. Every trial, every struggle, every smile, every sorrow. It’s the melody of my memories. It’s the sound of my heartstrings.”
But what’s the true story behind Jolene, the song? Was there really a “Jolene,” and did she really try to get Parton’s man? After all, the iconic song starts,
“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him just because you can.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Dolly Says the Song Is Based on a Red-Haired Woman Her Husband Knew at a Bank
In a past duet with Melissa Etheridge, in which they sang Jolene, Dolly explained the background of the song’s lyrics. Asked by Etheridge “who and when was Jolene?” and “did she get your man?” Dolly answered:
“She tried. This was back when I first got married. There was this red-haired gal working down at the bank. I knew my husband was spending more time at the bank than we had money. But, anyhow, she didn’t get him. She almost did. That was 37 years ago. I look at him now, and I think about hiding his Viagra and saying go get him.”
Good Housekeeping reports that the encounter occurred shortly after Dolly married her famously reclusive husband Carl Dean in 1966.
Dolly told a similar story to NPR. “She got this terrible crush on my husband,” Parton told the public radio station. “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.’ So it’s really an innocent song all around but sounds like a dreadful one.”
The Independent reported that Parton gave a similar story at a Glastonbury concert, saying, “I want you folks to know, though, that something good can come from anything. Had it not been for that woman I would never have written ‘Jolene’ and I wouldn’t have made all that money, so thank you, Jolene.”
The woman’s name wasn’t Jolene, though. That name came from another situation in Dolly’s life – a little girl she met while signing autographs.
According to NPR, Dolly met a little girl called Jolene in the 1960s while signing autographs after a country music TV show. “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 lyrics of Jolene stay true to that description, saying in one place:
Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene
NPR noted that the song has only 200 words, but it became Parton’s biggest hits when it was released in 1973. According to The Boot, many other artists have recorded the song, including White Stripes, Olivia Newton-John, Sherrié Austin, Margo Price, and Ellie Goulding.
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