Known for her big hair, war paint, and fancy outfits, Dolly Parton isn’t just another pretty face of country music. Her long list of number one hits, Grammy awards, and star-studded collaborations make her one of the genre’s most-loved heroes. She’s been in the game for over 50 years (and she looks like she hasn’t aged a day).
Hailing from rural Tennessee, her humble, small town roots and values would guide her through her remarkable career. From her early days with country giant Porter Wagoner to her legacy as one of country music’s unrivaled queens, we detail the high points of Dolly’s career and music below. Without further ado, check out our takes on the best Dolly Parton songs.
12. Coat of Many Colors
A song that inspired a children’s book and movie, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ was written by Dolly Parton in honor of a coat her mother sewed her when she was a girl. Parton has a true rags-to-riches story, and rags are exactly what her childhood coat was made of. When she wrote the song years later, its meaning came to represent not only her humble beginnings, but the spiritual richness she grew up with thanks to her mother despite their meager earnings. Dolly has many trademark tunes, and this autobiographical hit is one of them. Though she has written thousands of original songs over the course of her long career, this one remains her favorite.
11. Creepin’ In (with Norah Jones)
A duet that earned both Dolly Parton and Norah Jones a Grammy nomination for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, ‘Creepin’ In’ appears on Jones’ album Feels Like Home. The bluegrass-tinged number is a toe tapper, and the two singers meld their voices together perfectly. Parton has collaborated with many male artists over the years, her feminine vocals pairing well with the deeper voices of her male counterparts. However, this single is highlighted as not only one of Parton’s critically-acclaimed partnerships with a fellow female artist, but a shining collaboration between female artists for the country music genre as well.
10. My Tennessee Mountain Home
Another hit for Dolly in the ’70s, ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ was the title track to the concept album that helped define what the singer-songwriter stood for early on. The tune is pure country, with an uplifting message about being proud of where you’re from and valuing peace and tranquility as two important components of one’s life. Much like ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ the single is autobiographical, and Parton drew heavily from her modest roots while growing up in rural Tennessee. While the tune is tried-and-true vintage country from an instrumental perspective, Parton’s lyrics are especially poetic, including her favorite line, “Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh.” She grew up with 11 siblings and cared for many of them when they were little, so this lyric was always near and dear to her heart.
9. I Will Always Love You
One of contemporary music’s most popular songs, Dolly Parton’s legacy resides in part with the everlasting appeal of ‘I Will Always Love You.’ The Parton-penned tune has been around since the ’70s, when she scored one of her several number one hits after its initial release. She wrote it when her years-long relationship with fellow musician Porter Wagoner came to an end. The lyrics represented a peace offering of sorts. Decades later, when Whitney Houston recorded a cover of the sweetheart track for her film The Bodyguard, many involved didn’t realize just how big her version would become. Houston topped the charts with it, and it became her trademark recording. Parton continued to receive an extensive amount of royalties from the song as well because she wrote it. A well-known philanthropist in her homestate, she donated a significant portion of her royalties to struggling communities in the Nashville area.
A new decade meant no slowing down for Dolly, as she teamed up with fellow songwriting forces Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris for her hit song ‘Wildflowers.’ The acoustic-based song tells the story of an outsider, and one who is freer than wildflowers because “For at least I could run. They just died in the sun. And I refused to just wither in place.” The gentle tune features harmonies by all three singers, giving the hit single an angelic touch. ‘Wildflowers’ is featured on Parton’s ’87 album Trio. The record scored Grammy nominations and won a Grammy for “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.” The smash hit also went platinum multiple times.
Recommended: Our pick of the top Linda Ronstadt songs.
7. When I Get Where I’m Going
In 2005 Dolly earned her 25th number one hit with ‘When I Get Where I’m Going,’ a duet with country star Brad Paisley. Parton’s heavenly vocals were perfect for the track. Written by Rivers Rutherford, his lyrics are deeply spiritual and envision what it will be like to reach the afterlife, to see his loved ones again and run his fingers through a lion’s mane (a biblical reference to the power of God). The pair’s performance was so moving, they received a nomination from the Gospel Music Association for “Country Recorded Song of The Year.”
6. Blue Smoke
Another tribute to her childhood spent near the picturesque Smoky Mountains, ‘Blue Smoke’ teeters on the bluegrass line while maintaining Parton’s traditional country sound. A mountainous metaphor for leaving someone and heading towards greener pastures, Dolly leans into bluegrass symbolism for the chorus and takes a train to get there, arguably the favorite way for songwriters of the upbeat, acoustic genre to travel. ‘Blue Smoke’ debuted strong on Billboard charts in 2014, and proved that even after 50 years in the biz, she’s still got it.
5. There Was Jesus
A song that finds musician Zach Williams discovering his Christian faith, when his Nashville manager sent a demo recording of the spiritual tune to Dolly Parton she quickly agreed to sing with him on it. While Williams was leaning more into his faith for his new material, Parton was looking to get back to her roots, and she’s always loved the opportunity to sing about God’s love. Their collaboration resonated with listeners in both Christian music communities and the country music community. The single took the number one spot on both country charts and Christian music charts, making Dolly the first country artist to ever place on both at the same time. The song’s success didn’t stop there. The two won a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance” as well.
4. Here You Come Again
Dolly showed off her crossover ability with the pop hit ‘Here You Come Again’ in the late ’70s. A song about being hopelessly in love, both pop and country audiences loved the happy-go-lucky single, and its appeal to a wide range of listeners made it a radio favorite. The tune is one of the few Parton performed that she didn’t actually write. Though she sings it so well it sounds as if it was made for her, songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil actually pitched it to vocalist Brenda Lee first. Dolly was able to add to her Grammy collection with this release. ‘Here You Come Again’ scored her an award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
3. Islands in the Stream
In a 1980s post-disco world, ’70s headliner band The Bee Gees found themselves struggling to maintain the clout they had built during the previous decade. Because of this, they hung up their stagewear and headed for the studio, where they put their songwriting skills to the test by writing potential hits for many artists while maintaining a behind-the-scenes industry role. One of the legendary songs penned by the band was ‘Islands in the Stream,’ and it was set to go to Marvin Gaye. But that didn’t work out. Next in line was Dolly Parton. She teamed up with Kenny Rodgers for the recording, and history was made. Until ‘Amazed’ by country band Lonestar debuted, for close to 20 years Parton held the title of being the only country star to top Billboard’s highly coveted Hot 100 chart with this lovable single.
2. 9 to 5
A fun tune about the perils of the 9 to 5 grind, Parton showcased her acting skills with this popular original when she penned it while starring in a hit film by the same name alongside actors Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The 1980 film became an American comedy classic, and Dolly scored another number one hit with its title track. Since its release, the upbeat tune has become a steady force in pop culture over the years, being used in commercials, parodies on Saturday Night Live, and being covered by other singers trying to match Dolly’s sassy, endearing artistic essence. While the song is quintessential country-pop, one unique tidbit can be found in the recording. Parton used the clicky sound of her long, acrylic nails to mimic a percussive typewriter in the track. She came up with the creative idea while filming on set.
When an encounter with a young fan named Jolene left Dolly marveling at her striking beauty, she decided to write a song about her. The exercise morphed into a dark tale about a near-mythic figure, a devastatingly beautiful woman that leaves the protagonist in shambles, begging the temptress not to steal her man away. With a poignantly desperate tone due to Dolly’s emotive performance, the song is southern gothic to its core, making it a rare heavy original penned by the queen of country. But she balances out the tone with plenty of her trademark gentle twang and a toe-tapping beat. The Grammy Hall of Fame single not only represents some of Parton’s best songwriting, but its legacy also solidified it as one of country music’s most popular songs ever recorded, giving it a status as contemporary standard. It’s long been rumored that Dolly wrote two of her biggest hits, ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ in the same day.