Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

Betrayal, Bluegrass and Backwoods Barbie: Dolly Parton’s 20 Best Songs – Ranked!

We assess a catalogue that spans country, Christianity and chilling ballads.

The Guardian

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Dolly Parton at Academy of Country Music Awards

Dolly Parton attends the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

20. Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That (1989)

There are Dolly Parton songs that deliver an emotional gut-punch, and there are Dolly Parton songs that play to her glitzy public image. Why’d You Come in Here … is firmly in the latter category: it’s lustful, funny (“you could stop traffic in a gunny sack”), insanely catchy, and overflowing with camp exuberance.

19. Just Someone I Used to Know (1969)

Conventional wisdom dictates that Parton only really flowered after breaking up her duet partnership with Porter Wagoner: conventional wisdom has a point, but they made some fantastic records together, not least Just Someone I Used to Know’s heartsore paean to a former couple’s long-lasting post-split regret.

18. Tennessee Homesick Blues (1984)

The Parton-meets-Sylvester Stallone movie Rhinestone was a critical and commercial disaster: this song was the only thing that emerged unscathed from its wreckage, with its Bob Dylan-referencing title, get-me-out-of-New-York lyrics and a sound where Parton’s Appalachian roots – complete with the occasional burst of yodelling – scratch against the slick production.

17. Backwoods Barbie (2008)

Effectively a redux of Parton’s 1967 solo mission-statement Dumb Blonde, Backwoods Barbie is melodically one of her most charming contemporary songs, and lyrically among the sharpest: “Too much makeup, too much hair / Don’t be fooled by thinkin’ that the goods are not all there.”

16. Wildflowers (1987)

A highlight of Trio, the first album Parton recorded with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The instrumentation evokes old-time Appalachia – there is a lot of autoharp – the harmonies are perfect, the lyrics curiously equivocal about the benefits, or otherwise, of leaving your home town to run wild: regret balanced by defiance.

15. Two Doors Down (1977)

Two Doors Down began life as a straightforward pop-country track from the Here You Come Again album. Then a cover by Zella Lehr was a hit single and Parton refigured her original into an odd, and oddly appealing, country/soul/disco hybrid. Take your pick: either version is infectiously exuberant.

14. The Seeker (1975)

The best-known of Parton’s Christian-themed songs, The Seeker’s brilliance lies in the way the bounciness of the rhythm and melody snags against the distinct air of spiritual desperation in the lyrics: “I am a vessel that’s empty and useless … I am a bad seed … you are my last hope.”

13. To Daddy (recorded 1976, released 1995)

The cause of another row between Parton and Wagoner – he didn’t care for the way it tacitly encouraged women to leave loveless marriages – but subsequently covered by Emmylou Harris, To Daddy is a fine example of Parton’s storytelling abilities, saving its twist, and accompanying message, for the final verse, which shifts the song’s mood from stoicism to liberation.

12. Love Is Like a Butterfly (1974)

Hard for British TV viewers of a certain age to hear without automatically thinking of Wendy Craig struggling to suppress her adulterous urges in Carla Lane’s sitcom Butterflies, Love Is Like a Butterfly was Parton’s first No 1 after splitting from Wagoner, and understandably so: a delicate arrangement supports an entirely delightful melody.

11. Just Because I’m a Woman (1968)

Early solo Dolly in impressively tough-talking mood. Yes, she’s been up to no good, but so has he, so stuff your moralising. Killer lines: “When you look at me, don’t feel sorry for yourself / Just think of all the shame you might have brought somebody else.” Ouch!

10. Little Sparrow (2001)

Parton’s self-explanatorily titled The Grass Is Blue (ie … bluegrass) garnered her best reviews in years; its follow-up might be even better. The title track, her reworking of the Appalachian folk ballad Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies, is moving and, thanks to its parched, sparse sound, weirdly chilling.

9. 9 to 5 (1980)

Its rhythm inspired by the sound of Parton drumming her fingernails against her guitar, 9 to 5 might be the apotheosis of her “pop” years, but it’s a country song at heart: the lyrics are a tribute to downtrodden workers; you can imagine it stripped of its glossy production and set to acoustic guitar and pedal steel.

8. My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973)

The glorious title track from a concept album drawing on Parton’s childhood, My Tennessee Mountain Home is less concerned with depicting the poverty of her upbringing (cf In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)) than celebrating its simplicity: the mood of the music follows suit, building from stark to gleefully rousing.

7. Here You Come Again (1977)

No one should have been surprised when Parton pivoted towards pop – her early single, 1965’s Busy Signal, had as much to do with the 60s girl group sound as country – but the skill with which she did it is startling. Here You Come Again is an irresistible soft rock/pop confection.

6. The Bargain Store (1975)

Among her many talents, Parton is a gifted lyricist, as evidenced by the fact that the extended metaphor of The Bargain Store – a lady who has been around the block a few times compares herself to a secondhand shop – never feels grating or overdone: it is clever and, ultimately, ineffably moving.

5. Down from Dover (1970)

Down from Dover’s depiction of an abandoned unmarried mother giving birth to a stillborn child was controversial: Wagoner counselled Parton against releasing it. “Lord, I can’t get depressing enough, can I?” was her chuckling assessment, but while it shovels on the misery, it is heartbreaking rather than mawkish.

4. Islands in the Stream (1983)

Intended by the Bee Gees as a Motown-inspired duet in the style of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Islands in the Stream was transformed by Parton and the late Kenny Rogers: the songwriting is the Gibb brothers at the their most bulletproof, but the warmth of the vocals makes it.

3. I Will Always Love You (1974)

Whitney Houston’s globe-swallowing version remains the biggest-selling US single by a female artist, but Parton’s original is something else: smaller, more personal – it was a regretful but resolute farewell to Wagoner, whose star she had long eclipsed – and, if you prefer your emotions relatable, rather than blockbuster-sized – more affecting.

2. Coat of Many Colours (1971)

The mother of all Parton tearjerkers, based on a true story: poverty-stricken mum makes young Dolly a winter coat from multicoloured rags, while telling her the Bible’s story of Joseph and the coat of many colours. Schoolyard mockery ensues, but is stoically endured. Moral: “One is poor only if they chose to be.”

1. Jolene (1973)

Jolene doesn’t tower over the rest of Parton’s catalogue in terms of quality, but it is easily her most popular song, provoking hundreds of cover versions, by everyone from the White Stripes to Lil Nas X, and a succession of answer records. Perhaps that’s because the emotions in the song are so believable – the desperate pleading tempered by a brief passive aggressive shrug (“whatever you decide to do, Jolene”) – or perhaps it is the melody, which somehow, bafflingly, manages to be urgent and unhurried at the same time. Or perhaps it is the simplicity: stripped-back arrangement, live feel, no bridge or middle eight, just emotional punch.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for The Guardian

This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published February 1, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

Be a part of the Guardian’s future.

Become a Guardian supporter.