I’m not saying a song has to be a true story to be great, but there’s just something special about those songs that carry the weigh of truth in the lyrics.
Dolly Parton is easily one of the most recognizable figures in all of country music, and while she’s known for many songs, there’s always one that stands out above the rest: “Jolene.”
“Jolene” was the first single and title track from her 1973 album and was a hit right from the jump. It spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, peaking at number one the week of February 2nd, 1974. The single is certified double-platinum by the RIAA and was nominated for the Best Female Country Performance Grammy in 1974 and 1975, the second nomination being for a live performance.
But the numbers hardly sum up just how integral this song was to her career, as it captured audiences with its driving beat, pleading lyrics, and the suspense of not knowing whether her man would let her go, or if Jolene was even interested in stealing him.
While most people assumed the song was just a beautiful work of fiction (because if you haven’t seen pictures of a young Dolly you may want to stop what you’re doing and go take a look), it turns out there was a good bit of truth behind the song.
Just for reference, here’s Dolly in 1973:
In an interview with NPR back in 2008, she opened up about how this song came about.
Turns out, a redheaded bank teller had quite the interest in her husband, Carl Dean, and he seemed to very much enjoy the attention and was spending a bit too much time at the bank…
“She got this terrible crush on my husband and he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention.
It was kinda like a running joke between us. 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.”
Needless to say, she put a stop to this behavior but I don’t think young Dolly really had any worries…
As for the name Jolene, it actually came from a young fan who came on stage to get an autograph after one of her performances.
“One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl… she was probably 8 years old at the time, 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.”
And write a song she did.
In another interview, she said she actually wrote it the same day she penned “I Will Always Love You,” not a bad payout for a day’s work…
She recorded “Jolene” at RCA Studio B in Nashville on May 22nd, 1973, 50 years ago today, and the rest, as they say… is history.