Dolly Parton is one of country music’s most popular and long-lasting icons. She writes over 3,000 songs. 108 of them reached the top of the Billboard Hot Country charts, with 54 top 10s and 25 #1s.
One of the secrets to her success is that she’s observant and finds inspiration for them everywhere, from banks to graveyards. She also considers herself a storyteller and is always trying to make her audience feel something.
Like and subscribe for more on this music icon’s rise to fame. Watch our video to learn the shocking true stories behind Dolly Parton’s biggest songs.
I Will Always Love You
Dolly Parton’s most well-known song topped the Hot Country Charts twice; first during its initial release in 1974 and then again in ’82 when it appeared on the soundtrack for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The inspiration for the song came when Dolly decided to leave the Porter Wagoner Show. She’d only planned on staying for 5 years but had been on it for 7. The departure caused tension and mixed emotions that she put into the lyrics. Porter leave in tears, and he insisted on being allowed to produce it.
The song became a hit for the 3rd time when Whitney Houston recorded it again for the soundtrack for the 1992 motion picture The Bodyguard. Dolly overwhelm by her version. It stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for 14 weeks and earned 2 Grammys, including Record of the Year.
Jolene firsts releases Dolly’s 13th album which went to #1 on the charts in 1974. She later named an episode after it in her 8-part Netflix anthology series Heritage.
The idea for the title came when Dolly met an 8-year-old little redheaded, green-eyed girl who asked for an autograph. She asked her name and repeated it a few times to herself. She soon realized that it sounded like a song and decided to make it one.
Dolly’s a storyteller, and a title wasn’t enough. Jolene’s tale of a woman stealing another woman’s man comes when a bank teller who is also a redhead flirts with her husband Carl Thomas Dean. Dolly claimed she was 6 feet tall and had “everything I didn’t.”
Combining the name and story resulted in a hit. Jolene is now one of her most covered songs, with versions by The White Stripes, Pentatonix, and her goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
9 to 5
Dolly hesitated when asked to start a movie career. Jane Fonda wanted her to join the cast of 9 to 5 in 1980, and she was nervous due to a lack of acting experience. She agreed on 1 condition; she allows to write the theme song.
Dolly wrote down everything she learned from observing the actors on the set. After listening to their stories, she went back to her hotel room every night to write them down and play her guitar.
Once it was ready, she gathered all the women on set to sing it. It even included the sound of her acrylic nails which she also recorded on a separate track called Nails By Dolly. The song won 2 Grammys, including Best Country Song and Best Female Country Performance.
Islands in the Stream
The Bee Gees were major names in the 60s and 70s, but they also wrote songs for other artists. They originally wrote Islands in the Stream for Marvin Gay. When they handed it to Kenny Rogers, he suggested turning it into a duet with Dolly. She happened to be downstairs in the same studio at the time, and the rest was history.
The song flew up the country and adult contemporary charts and became the 2nd Hot 100 #1 hit for both artists. It also led to a series of other collaborations, including Real Love, Love is Strange, and You Can’t Make Old Friends.
Coat of Many Colors
This song inspires by a moment where she was sitting on Porter Wagner’s tour bus while he had his costumes cleaned and saw a suit with a tag on a wall. It reminded her of a coat of rags her mother once sewed for her as a child. She was proud to wear it despite getting teased about it.
Dolly says that fans relate to the song because everyone has suppressed scars and was made fun of for something as a child. She calls it the little gift that keeps on giving.
The song inspired covers by Shania Twain, Joey and Rory, Emmylou Harris, and more. It also spawned a children’s book in 1996, a TV movie in 2015, and a 2016 Christmas sequel.
This was Dolly’s first top 10 record from her first album. Curly Putman wrote it, as well as Tom Jones’ hit song The Green Green Grass of Home. The song launched her career and caught the attention of Porter Wagoner, who offered her a regular singing job on his show.
Dolly says she’s tried to carry the song’s message of “this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool” with her throughout her life. If her savvy business decisions are anything to go by, it’s served her well. She also jokes that she knows she’s not dumb and not blonde.
Down from Dover
Dolly listed this song as one of her favorites when interviewed on The Steven Colbert Show. She admits that she often prefers songs people haven’t heard to her biggest hits. Down from Dover tells the story of a woman who gets pregnant and disowned by her parents, hoping that the baby’s father would come back to her.
Daddy’s Workin’ Boots
This is only one of Dolly’s songs that focuses on fathers; others include In the Good Old Days and Daddy Was an Old-Time Preacher Man. It was released in 1972 and tells of how hard her father worked to support her and her 11 siblings.
She remembers how the family used to take turns rubbing corn silk lotion on his hands and soaking his feet when he came home. He was illiterate but she respected his intelligence and work ethic.
A desire to educate other less fortunate children led her to found the Imagination Library in 1995 which gives free books to children every month. It’s now a major organization all over the world that’s given out over 100 million books.
Like and subscribe to FactsVerse for more behind-the-scenes songwriting details. Keep watching to learn about how Dolly wrote more of her most successful songs, including movie soundtrack standouts, classic mountain music, and more.
Light of a Clear Blue Morning
This is another song sparked by Dolly’s emotions after leaving the Porter Wagner show. It evokes a more hopeful and less somber mood than I Will Always Love You. She got the idea for it while driving home for one of her final meetings with the man who made her famous. She says it’s about deliverance and freedom and that God was in it.
The song first appeared on her album New Harvest…First Gathering in 1977, then on the soundtrack for the 1992 movie Straight Talk, and finally on Dolly’s 2003 album For God and Country.
This song appeared on Dolly’s 34th album Hungry Again. It showed off her country and bluegrass roots. It was also one of the most emotional tracks she’s ever written because it was dedicated to her singing partner and friend Tammy Wynette who passed away in 1998.
Dolly performed it at her memorial. She said that Tammy would shine forevermore. She also remembered their good times, joking about the time Tammy asked her to do something about her frog hair and she responded with “that’s why God gave us talent, ‘cause he screwed up our hair so bad.”
I Believe in You
Dolly has no children but told Oprah it was meant to be because “everybody’s kids could be mine.” She’s dedicated much of her life to helping children by founding the Imagination Library, giving out scholarships through the Dolly Parton Foundation, and donating to pediatric hospitals and the Make a Wish Foundation.
Her 44th album was her first one for children, and its lead track, I Believe In You, gives them encouragement and hope. It’s inspired by the classic story The Little Engine that Could and even includes train sounds. It’s also available to download for free.
I Still Believe
This is another song that shows off Dolly’s philanthropic side. She wrote it after donating $1 million for vaccine research after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The song was a bonus track on her first holiday album since Home for Christmas in 1990. It’s meant to encourage togetherness, especially during the holiday season.
Love is Like a Butterfly
This song will be familiar to anyone who watched Dolly’s 70s variety show Dolly because it was the opening theme. Butterflies have always been one of her favorites, calling them a rare and gentle thing. They also form the W in her logo for her theme park Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Tennessee Homesick Blues
This was the title track for Dolly’s movie Rhinestone. While the film didn’t do well, the song topped the country charts.
The song’s story provides a look into her childhood in Sevier County, Tennessee. She still loves the community she grew up in and has consistently given back to it, including hosting a telethon to raise money after a fire in 2016. It was also where she began the Imagination Library project.
Dolly released this song at a time when her core fan base was losing interest after she moved from bluegrass to pop. It was the key track on and the title of her 2nd bluegrass album.
Its acoustic style feels like the Appalachian mountain music she grew up with. She says she knew she wouldn’t make as much money with it as her more accessible hits. Even if it wasn’t as succesful, she admits that it felt good to sing in the familiar style again.
What’s the first song that comes to mind when you think of Dolly Parton? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe for more on the making of your favorite artists’ biggest hits.