KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #238: Jolene by Dolly Parton (+) The White Stripes and Others.

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.

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History: KEXP-Song #464…Seven-Nation Army by The White Stripes.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, 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. 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 #464: Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

For as long as musicians have been arranging notes to create music, they have done so with the reaction of their audience/listeners in mind. For example, if a performer wants to bring energy to a song, they may play harder and faster. If they want something more atmospheric, maybe they will slow things down, add some romantic violins and so on. As consumers of music, we often like the artists we do because of the way their music makes us feel. This relationship….this partnership….between performer and audience is often quite out in the open and obvious and welcome. But, what if it not so obvious why we react to a song as we do? What if there is something so visceral and primal embedded within the structure of a song that we are unaware of how our emotions are being manipulated? That is the subject of today’s song, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.

Released in 2003, “Seven Nation Army” is unique among songs that have reached #1 on the charts. For starters, this song has no chorus. Secondly, the opening guitar notes sound deep like they are made by the thick strings of a bass guitar. Those notes are not made by a bass guitar. Finally, aside from the opening two lines, the lyrical story told by this song has absolutely zero impact on audience reaction. “Seven Nation Army” is a song that is built with a structure laden with psychological tricks that have transformed a story about the price of fame into a modern day battle anthem known the world over. Let’s dissect the opening of the song to see how this effect was achieved.

The White Stripes are comprised of singer/guitarist, Jack White and his sister, Meg, on drums. When “Seven Nation Army” begins, it opens with Jack playing seven distinct notes on his guitar. The sequence of these notes repeats several times. Each note played increases by one up the musical scale. So, you have this repetition of seven rising notes played, again and again. As an experiment in your home, if you were to say the word, “Oh!” seven times in a row, raising the octave level by one each time, you would see that the effect is to create an anticipatory sense of urgency. So, as Jack White plays these guitar notes he, then, starts to stomp his foot to establish a beat. Then, Meg White begins to echo that beat on her drum. If you know much about Indigenous culture then, you will know that a drum beat is often symbolic of a heartbeat. Psychologically, your mind tells you that something urgent is about to happen, you have been drawn in, emotionally, because of the drum/heart beats and then, Jack white lets everyone know what this is all about by uttering the opening two lines….”I’m gonna fight ’em all! A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back!”

We have been primed by this song to fight so, let he battle begin. It is little wonder that “Seven Nation Army” appeals to the gladiator within an audience. This song has long-ceased to be a simple song on the radio. It has taken on a life of its own and is now a staple at sporting events around the world. It is a song used to introduce combatants and to pump up supporters. It is a battle anthem built upon a structure of psychological tricks designed to illicit a primal response. It works well. Audiences love it and happily play along, even if they don’t always know why.

I am including four (!) videos for this post. The first one is the official video for this song. This video is yet another example of the ingenious/nefarious nature of “Seven Nation Army”. While the song, itself, induces a willingness to engage in battle, this video induces motion sickness in many who view it. The perpetual-motion element of the video makes it difficult to concentrate and serves to disorient you as you watch. Like the song, the video manipulates your senses and causes a visceral reaction. This video won the award for “Video of the Year” because of the unique and original construction. I would encourage you to watch as much of the video as you can manage. But, at the same time, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!! Viewer discretion advised.

I will explain the other three videos in the comments section below. But, please check them out. They each bring something different that will help you understand and appreciate what makes “Seven Nation Army” so special. As songs go on this list of the 500 greatest of all time, “Seven Nation Army” holds a unique place. It is a song rarely, fully sung by audiences yet one that everyone loves to sing to when it starts. It is a song that possesses a simple, repetitive structure yet, the song structure is unique among a majority of hit songs. It is a song better suited for combat octagons and sporting arenas than concert stages. It is a song with an opening riff as recognizable as legendary songs like, “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones but yet, a riff that is now used to teach children how to play the guitar in the same way that “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple is used for the same purpose. It is a song about the price of fame that has made The White Stripes famous. It is “Seven Nation Army”. Try not to enjoy. I dare ya.

The link to the official music video for Seven-Nation Army by The White Stripes can be found here.

The link to The Whites Stripes website can be found here.

***Bonus video #1:

Seven Nation Army used as a motivational chant at a US College football game. This is an example of the group frenzy that the song inspires and, also, the fact that it is a song rarely, fully sung by those who sing it. In this case, the crowd ignores the lyrics being played and, instead, get lost in the repetitive structure of the opening riff. The link to this video can be found here.

***Bonus video #2:

Jack White dissects the opening riff for fellow guitar legends, Jimmy Page (from Led Zeppelin) and The Edge (from U2). I have always liked it when craftsmen share the tricks of their trade. In this case, what I want you to look for is how visually easy it is to see the rising octaves of the seven opening notes. As each man plays the riff, you will see their hand slide up the neck of the guitar in complete relation to each note of the riff. The link to this video can be found here.

***Bonus Video #3:

Homer Simpson plays “Seven Nation Army”. A guitar shop staple now. The link for this video can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.