This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #238: Jolene by Dolly Parton (+) The White Stripes and many others.
When you think of all the various performers who have come up on this list, is there anyone as universally loved and respected than Dolly Parton? She has been at the forefront of the Country and Western Music scene for almost half a century now and is as relevant and influential today as she ever was in the past. Dolly has as many hit songs as she does flowing wigs! She has sold millions of albums all over the world and is a member of every conceivable Music Hall of Fame imaginable. But, despite her success, Dolly has gone through stretches in her career; especially, in her earlier days, when success was more elusive and she found herself questioning whether she would actually be able to make a career out of writing and singing songs.
But Dolly has always had several things going for her that have helped keep her on the right path. For starters, there is a decency and a friendliness that she exudes that draws others to her side. There is, also, a very generous and charitable side to her that is built on the premise that doing for others is the foundation of a good life. Her efforts to promote literacy by giving away (for free) millions of storybooks to children in need is legendary. For a more modern example, Dolly was one of the first “celebrities” to publicly endorse the need for everyone to vaccinate themselves against the Covid-19 virus. Her donation of millions toward testing and development of the vaccine was one of the major factors that sped up the process of vaccine availability, as well as, accelerated the drive to get as many needles in American arms as quickly as possible.
Behind the scenes, in her personal life, Dolly has lived as exemplary an existence as one can. Her life has never been fodder for the tabloids. Her marriage to her husband, Carl Dean, has been a source of strength for her all throughout her career. In fact, it was one time when she felt her marriage might be threatened that inspired her to write one of her most well-known songs, “Jolene”. As a final note before we talk more about “Jolene”, it has become part of Dolly’s lore that she managed to fully write “Jolene” on the very same day as she wrote one of her other greatest hits, “I Will Always Love You” (which was a hit for her but even a bigger hit for Whitney Houston).
Dolly Parton is a very beautiful woman. One of the things I admire about her beauty is how it comes from within her, as much as it defined by her shape. Dolly Parton has always been someone who took pride in her appearance but, she has never been someone who flaunted her body for the sake of attention. Unlike many of today’s female singers, Dolly has never felt the need to twerk or to appear on stage in her underwear. She projects an aura of sexuality simply by being herself. That is refreshing, in my opinion.
The premise of the song, “Jolene” is that Parton confronts a woman named Jolene, who she accuses of trying to steal her husband. In the song, Parton is very deferential to the Jolene character; stating that she knows Jolene can take her husband because her beauty is “beyond compare”. Apparently, the song is based upon a true incident in which a female fan attempted to sway Parton’s husband. From what was stated about the incident, Carl Dean stayed true to Dolly. However, most married couples I know have all had instances where temptation has reared its charming head. Those that were solid to begin with tended to be better able to withstand the emotional worry that comes with the threat of your life, as you know it, unravelling. In Parton’s case, she and Carl Dean survived and she wrote a hit song about it. That being said, Parton has stated that despite the success she has had with “Jolene”, the memories associated with it are painful enough that she does not enjoy singing it live and avoids doing so as a general rule.
So, if Dolly Parton won’t sing it, the task of doing so has fallen to others.
“Jolene” has gone on to become Parton’s most covered song. One of those covers has, in turn, gone on to be regarded as one of the best live cover songs ever recorded and that is the cover performed by “The White Stripes”. One of the best metrics for gauging the success of an artists’s attempt at a cover song is that it sticks to the fundamentals of the original version but, presents the song in a new and unique manner that makes the song their own, regardless of how successful and iconic the original version may have been. In the case of “The White Stripes”, Jack and Meg White take Parton’s Country-esque song styling and turn it on its ear with an fiery Bluesy, Rock-infused remake that has become one of their greatest and most requested hits. “The White Stripe’s” cover is loud and strong, with Jack White’s voice quaking with emotion as he assumes the Parton role in this martial drama. Dolly Parton has stated that this is, in her opinion, the definitive cover version of her song.
There have been other cover versions of note, too. Dolly, herself, re-invented the song by appearing with the a capella group, “Pentatonix”. This version of “Jolene” stands as the most recent time that Dolly has appeared on the Top Forty music charts. Another, different take on the song was by female singer, Jennifer Nettles who, in her song, “That Girl”, turned the whole premise of the song around. In her song, Nettles took the character, “Jolene”, who has become a symbol of marital infidelity and told her story from a feminist perspective. In “That Girl”, Jolene was someone who had no interest in Parton’s husband at all but, instead, came to her in sisterhood with a warning that her husband may, in fact, have a roving eye and that Parton should protect herself. Finally, there, also, exists a cover version that adds a final verse that implies that Parton’s character’s protestations are really a disguise for the fact that she, herself, is actually attracted to “Jolene”. When Dolly Parton was asked for comment on this final cover version, she simply smiled and said, “That’s certainly one interpretation” and then she walked away.
By any measure, Dolly Parton is someone who has had a successful life. Whether it is record sales and Grammy Awards or things beyond the Music Industry such as, her efforts to promote literacy and health care, Dolly has set a pretty high standard on how to conduct yourself, in public and in private. We should all aspire to achieve such excellence in our chosen fields and to exhibit such human decency in our everyday lives. I don’t know Dolly, personally but, if I did, I feel as though she would have the makings of a good friend.
For now, I will show you a video of her singing “Jolene” and then, I will follow that with “The White Stripes” smoking cover. Just for a counter-point, I will toss in Jennifer Nettles and “That Girl” as well. Have a great day, everyone.
The link to the video for the song, “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Dolly Parton, can be found here.
The link to the video of “Jolene” as covered by The White Stripes, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The White Stripes, can be found here.
The link to the song, “That Girl” by Jennifer Nettles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Jennifer Nettles, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best music, regardless of genre. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.