There aren’t many artists who have slayed a crowd 100 thousand strong at Glastonbury. Fewer, still, have turned around and delighted an audience a fraction of the size a year later at the Ryman for charity. Nor, in today’s political climate, have many gotten away with endorsing boobs in a presidential race. Then again, there’s only one Dolly Parton, and while the milestones of her career over the years are impressive enough, her warm personality, irreplaceable sense of humor, and unending energy as a performer at 72 are as inspiring as her bold stage presence and big voice were when she came onto the scene in the late 1960s.
Parton was born in Sevier County, TN, and grew up with very little money in a one-room cabin. While her humble beginnings became the topic for many of her most famous songs, she wasn’t long for that lifestyle: by age 10, Parton was performing on local programs, and at 13 she made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance with a rendition of George Jones’ “You Gotta Be My Baby,” which she sang with her uncle. That glimpse of big city glitz was a rare one for Parton; at home in the Smoky Mountains, 12 mouths to feed kept money tight. She moved to Nashville after high school, where she began making a name for herself as a songwriter. But her career as a performer really took off when Porter Wagoner gave her a weekly spot on The Porter Wagoner Show — suddenly, the blonde bombshell with a sharp wit and breathtaking voice was winning hearts via one of the country’s biggest television audiences.
After Parton found success dueting with Wagoner, she began releasing solo material with debut single “Just Because I’m A Woman,” in 1968 and eventually got her first #1 song with “Joshua.” None were as well-received, though, as “Jolene,” which shot up the country charts to #1 in 1973 and even hovered in the Hot 100 for eight weeks, peaking at #60 in March of 1974.
Parton left Wagoner’s show and ended their professional relationship in 1974 after 14 Top 10 hits together, but the split had a lasting impact on her career: it inspired “I Will Always Love You,” one of the top selling singles of all time.
“I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Wagoner’s show for five years. I had been there for seven,” she explained CMT in 2011. “And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn. We both believed that we knew what was best for us. Well, he believed he knew what was best for me, too, and I believed that I knew more what was best for me at that time… He just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going.”
She went home and wrote “I Will Always Love You” about her professional relationship with Wagoner.
“It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here,'” she said. “I took it in the next morning. I said, ‘Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ‘That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.”
Parton’s music continued to soar with a solo career driven not only by her musical talents, but also her endearing sense of humor and unrivaled stage presence. That same year, the now-ubiquitous single “I Will Always Love You” went #1 (and it would top the charts again in 1984, making Parton the first artist to have the same song go #1 twice).
Although Parton was nominated many times, both solo and with Wagoner, she won her first Grammy Award in 1979 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for the song “Here You Come Again.” Since then, Parton has racked up seven more Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Over the years, Parton has leant her talents to classic film roles (9 To 5, Steel Magnolias) and dabbled in other enterprises, including opening the Sevier County theme park Dollywood, and establishing a dinner theatre with Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. One of her proudest accomplishments is the Dollywood Foundation, which funds the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and provides a book a month to children in communities across North America.
But for all Parton’s musical wins, on-screen classics, and philanthropic pursuits, she’s made a fierce role model for fans in other ways, too. An astute businesswoman, she owns all of the publishing rights to every song she’s ever written — she even denied Elvis the rights to record “I Will Always Love You” when his management said he’d have to take half the publishing rights to do so.
“I realized early on that I didn’t want to just be a singer. They call this the music business, and I wanted to make sure that I took care of the business end of show business,” she told Paste earlier this month. “Because it really is a business, and you can give it all away and let other people tell you what to do, or you can try your best to try and own as much as you can of your own life and your own creativity.”
Parton has been known to stand her ground outside of the business world, too. On a surface level, Parton dresses exactly the way she pleases, owning her glitter, big hair and bigger assets with glitzy garb that has only grown more distinctive as the years have passed.
“I would do it even if I wasn’t in show business,” she said in a 2002 interview. “I would be a waitress spending all my wages on make-up and bleach and high-heeled shoes… I’m not a natural beauty. It’s not that I’m beautiful with all that shit either — it’s just that’s what I enjoy and what makes me comfortable.”
Parton’s unflinching loyalty to others is revealed even deeper in her relationships with her husband, her family, and her home. This year, Parton is celebrating her 50th anniversary to husband Carl Dean — an accomplishment for any marriage. She’s set up her charity work and business ventures in her hometown of Sevier County, keeping it close to home in order to provide jobs for the hardworking community that built her. She’s been outspoken about bullying and commonly preaches equality for people of all backgrounds. You’d be hard-pressed to find Parton speaking ill of someone, but she’s quick to defend the rights of other people to make their own choices. Whether she’s sticking up for goddaughter Miley Cyrus or casting an eyeroll at bathroom bills, Parton always seems to find a way to strike down bigotry with common sense.
But while her non-musical accomplishments are almost as well-known as the ones in the studio, we’re counting down the 10 best songs of the Tennessee-born country legend on the heels of the release of her new album, Pure & Simple.
10. “PMS Blues” (from Heartsongs: Live From Home, 1994)
With banter as quick-witted as her lyrics and an enduring self-deprecating sense of humor, Parton doesn’t exactly need studio time to nab laughs. The down-to-earth “PMS Blues” (a song about — you guessed it — periods!) was mostly reserved for her live shows, but made it to tape on 1994’s Heartsongs: Live From Home, a live album recorded at Dollywood for a small audience. This recording captures Parton as fans who have followed her vast career have come to love her: bawdy, hilarious, unafraid and witty as hell with no pretense. She may have released this song more than two decades into her solo career, but the ballsiness of “PMS Blues” is a tribute to a career full of confidence, humor, and telling it like it is.
9. “Backwoods Barbie” (from Backwoods Barbie, 2008)
“Backwoods Barbie” may not be an old favorite, but the title track from Parton’s 2008 release has already become a high point of her live shows for its unabashed celebration of the false eyelashes and over-the-top looks that have carved out her personal style over the years (and made fodder for plenty of jokes, including Parton’s tendency to poke fun at herself on stage). “So read into it what you will, but see me as I am,” she says. “The way I look is just a country girl’s idea of glam.” Surface-level glamour may take look different to the down-home country girl than it does on the runway, but Parton has made a career out of the talent and wit beneath the get-ups. Contrary to the lyrics, it’s unlikely anyone has ever been “fooled into thinkin’ the goods are not all there.”
8. “Little Sparrow” (from Little Sparrow, 2001)
For all of Parton’s commercial success in mainstream country and pop, she isn’t afraid to dabble in traditional music, too. Parton released a trilogy of bluegrass albums in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and Little Sparrow (the second release) included a collaboration with Nickel Creek as well as a cover of “Seven Bridges Road.” The entire record lends itself well to harmonies and collaboration, but title track “Little Sparrow” stands out, particularly in the live setting, as a showcase for Parton’s vocal strengths. Lyrically, the song is a rare moment of fragility for the larger-than-life star, with a comforting voice urging the listener to “Never trust the hearts of men.” It’s a bittersweet song that lacks Parton’s usual merriment, revealing her depth as a songwriter and singer sans frills. “They will crush you like a sparrow, leaving you to never mend,” she warns. Sung in Parton’s delicate, foreboding vocals, one can’t help but believe her.
7. “Tennessee Homesick Blues” (from Rhinestone, 1984)
“New York City ain’t no kind of place/ For a country girl with a friendly face,” Parton sings on this 1984 tribute to her home state. While the sentiment has been echoed in many a country song, Parton’s lyrical lament over the lack of grits, gravy and country ham in her life makes for a vivid picture of the rural life she left behind. She makes the point on other songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” and her consistent involvement in philanthropy around the Volunteer State lends an authenticity to the recurring theme.
6. “Here You Come Again” (from Here You Come Again, 1977)
Although most of Parton’s hits were written by the country legend herself, this 1977 single was written by husband-and-wife songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Originally intended for Brenda Lee, “Here You Come Again” was selected to broaden Parton’s pop appeal—despite her initial hesitation. “She said a monkey could record this song and have a hit with it,” her manager Sandy Gallin told Sirius XM earlier this year. Parton was eventually swayed into recording the number, but she put her foot down before letting the production stray too far from the twang that built her. Parton insisted upon adding a steel guitar to the final mix, spurring producer Gary Klein to hire the renowned Al Perkins for the additional instrumentals. The song saw success in both formats, clinching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot Country charts for five weeks and climbing to #3 on the Hot 100.
5. “Coat Of Many Colors” (from Coat Of Many Colors, 1971)
“Coat Of Many Colors” recalls Parton’s mother sewing scraps and rags together for the children’s clothes, likening the careful stitches to the Bible story of Joseph and a dazzling, rich coat. Parton arrives at school only to find her classmates laughing at her tattered clothing, but her good nature endures: “But they didn’t understand it, and I tried to make them see/ One is only poor, only if they choose to be/ Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be/ In my coat of many colors my momma made for me.” The song rose to #4 on the U.S. Country Singles chart and has inspired renditions from the likes of Shania Twain and Alison Krauss. Parton has called this autobiographical 1971 classic one of her favorites, and the number would go on to title an NBC biopic on Parton in 2015.
4. “Islands In The Stream” (from Eyes That See In The Dark by Kenny Rogers, 1983)
“Islands In The Stream” was written by the BeeGees with a distinctly different vocalist in mind: Marvin Gaye. But even once Kenny Rogers got his hands on the number, it took a few failures before he brought in Parton to carry the recording home. “I’d sung that song for four days and I finally just told Barry Gibb, I said, ‘I don’t even like this song anymore,’” Rogers told Taste Of Country of the track in 2013. “And [Gibb] said ‘What we need is Dolly Parton.’” She happened to be downstairs, and although Parton and Rogers had only met briefly before the collaboration, their work together on “Islands In The Stream” yielded a classic recording and a lifelong friendship. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking the second time Parton and Rogers each accomplished that feat throughout their individual careers, and the country legends have collaborated several more times since its 1983 release.
3. “I Will Always Love You” (from Jolene, 1974)
Whitney Houston may have taken this number to another level (and effectively shown us all what it means to have the range), but it was Parton who penned and originally recorded “I Will Always Love You.” The song wasn’t some obscure B-side before Houston tackled it: Parton hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart with the bittersweet number in 1974 and again with a re-recording in 1982. Houston’s cover of the song for her 1992 film The Bodyguard cemented the song as one of the best-selling singles of all time, a fact that Parton embraces. “It’s just the gift that keeps on giving,” she said in a 2014 interview for Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highway. We are inclined to agree.
2. “9 To 5″ (from 9 To 5 And Odd Jobs, 1980)
Shining a spotlight on women in the workforce, “9 To 5″ and the movie of the same name were as much a pinnacle for Parton’s career as they were for the scores of women in the audience taking notes. The movie was Parton’s first film role, featuring the singer alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as her co-workers. “9 To 5″ was nominated for Grammy awards for Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance and was arguably one of Parton’s biggest crossover hits, too. Parton’s celebration of the common woman’s struggle with wit and confidence cemented her as a relatable, larger-than-life poster girl for female independence.
1. “Jolene” (from Jolene, 1974)
“Jolene” isn’t just the best Dolly Parton song of all time — it’s one of the most beloved and influential songs of the last century. With covers that span from the dark, rock-heavy rendition that often showed up in the White Stripes live sets to Parton’s Goddaughter Miley Cyrus’ barn-burning backyard version, singers across generations have taken hold of lyrically simple song and made it their own. “Jolene” was one of Parton’s first hit singles in when it topped the charts in 1974, and while the sentiment is based on a young thing at the bank that has a soft spot for Parton’s husband, the name found its origin in something much sweeter. “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 in 2008. “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’s unabashed struggle with feelings of inadequacy, especially coming from a figure as well-known and beloved as Parton, offers a relatable quality, but its simple, repetitive lyric, recognizable hook and tone of desperation have given the song an endurance that has seen it survive through generations.