(Eyes That See in the Dark, 1983)
The reason this list is 11 songs and not a nice, round 10 is because of this one. It would be a sacrilege to leave out her biggest hit.
Written by the venerable Bee Gees, co-sung by Kenny Rogers, and destined for karaoke machines around the world, it’s a sparkling, lovey-dovey, pop monster as only the Brothers Gibb could write. It only makes it to the 11-spot on our list because Parton’s catalog of solo hits is just too rich on its own.
Longtime pals and collaborators, Rogers and Parton got together again this year to sing “You Can’t Make Old Friends” off of Blue Smoke
(White Limozeen, 1989)
If you thought the phrase “painted-on jeans” was a recent country western ideal for women, think again. Way back in 1989, Parton used it to describe her cruel, flirtatious beau. And he looks seriously good in those things.
Though the song was written for her by two men, it still flips the script in an impressive way. It’s usually men who sing about women who can stop traffic during a night on the town, but Parton can’t peel her eyes off her dreamy cowboy. It’s a fun, lighthearted ode to jealousy in a way that is distinctly Dolly. The track’s upbeat, cut-time drive and happy, bouncing fiddle are enough to make you want to throw on some tight jeans and cowboy boots and cut a rug of your own.
(9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, 1980)
Who among us can’t sympathize? A ragtime piano drives away on a dark, major chord while Parton comes to grips with yet another day as a workaday wage slave. Country music is—or at least used to be—the balm of the working class. Her distinctive voice reminding you that “You’ve got a dream he’ll never take away” is about the sweetest medicine there is.
It’s impressive how Parton—who’s enjoyed a successful performing career since her teen years, maybe never working a 9 to 5 job in her life—can get away with performing this song with a straight face. But, as we’ll discover as this list unfolds, Parton’s warmth and sincerity is one of the keys to her appeal. You feel the conviction in her voice, which goes down as smooth and invigorating as the morning “cup of ambition” she describes in the first verse.
Oh, and the typewriter percussion is pure genius.
(Blue Smoke, 2014)
More than 45 years (!!) since her first top 10 Country single, “Blue Smoke”—the title track from her newest release—is pure, distilled, raw country. With bluegrass instrumentation and momentum, it trundles ahead like a locomotive, eager and earnest. You can hear her age manifesting itself in raspy, throaty tones when she sings first several lines—which only makes the song better. It lends itself well to a song about a long-suffering, mistreated lover who declares over the bridge, “I’ve had just about all the heartbreak I can stand!”
(The Fairest of them All, 1970)
Today, it must be hard to believe that country music—with its rock and hip-hop collaborations, songs about beer, parties, trucks and more beer—used to be notoriously depressing. “Down From Dover” is old-school country, one of the darkest songs you’ll ever hear.
Parton’s warbling soprano mourns as she tells the tale of a young girl, pregnant and jilted by the father, is turned away by her family. With nowhere to turn and nothing to cling to but the hope her lover will return from Dover, the baby is a stillborn. And oh yeah, the father still isn’t coming home. Ouch.
“Down From Dover” is Parton’s songwriting at its most visceral, a story song in the country tradition that starts out sad and only becomes sadder. Her ability to paint the emotions of her protagonists is richly on display.