(Coat of Many Colors, 1971)
Parton can craft songs that depress the hell out of you, then lift you right back up again on the next track. The impressive diversity of her epic catalog attests to this.
John Lennon’s thematically-similar “Imagine” was released that same year, but 1971’s “A Better Place to Live” is easily the better song. Parton envisions a better world, attainable “if we’d love one another instead of finding faults.” Lennon’s song is wistful and apathetic, while Parton wields optimism and joy. She blends the shining, happy sounds of Americana and gospel with the ideals of the hippies they were so at odds with. It all comes together perfectly, including the kind of “la-la-las” that even the flower children could groove on.
(Heartbreak Express, 1982)
The richness of the vocal harmonies on this song is a masterclass in itself. Parton’s delicate voice floats atop the rich, throaty ones of her backing vocalists in this magical way. The arrangement is classic and vintage, which pairs perfectly with the song’s lyrical themes of nostalgia and the subtle, nagging fear that your best days might just be behind you—when you were with him. It sounds lighter than its implied meaning threatens to be. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” is pleasant to listen to, but with relatable, substantial lyrical content—or in a word, perfect.
If there is such a thing as minimalist country-pop, “Jolene” might be the finest example of the non-genre. It’s stripped-down and bare, with urgent guitar plucking and Parton’s pleading desperation the primary adornments.
It’s not a story or perspective we’re used to seeing in art—a woman pleads with another not to steal her man away, even though she’s capable of doing so. It’s a vulnerable, humiliating thing to admit—that someone else could easily steal your lover away. It’s an atypical manifestation of insecurity, laid bare in a sincere, unflinching admission. It’s that stark, cold nature of Parton’s perspective that grabs you, and the bristling acoustic guitars layered beneath are frantic, methodical and uneasy—just like the song’s protagonist.
(Coat of Many Colors, 1971)
We’ve mentioned country music’s penchant for story songs and clever lyricism. “Coat of Many Colors” has both in spades. A play on the coat the biblical Joseph’s father bestows upon him, Parton’s multicolored coat is crafted from rags and scraps her destitute mother collected. Its multicoloredness is a thing of necessity not novelty, but young Parton doesn’t appreciate the difference. All she knows is her mother made it, and that’s all that matters.
Parton’s youth as a poor girl in rural Appalachia shaped her and provided her with inspiration for her storied songwriting career, but this song is the crowned jewel of her early work. It warms your heart just as it breaks it.
(Backwoods Barbie, 2008)
After a multi-decade career as one of the greatest success stories in country or pop music, the humility on display on “Jesus and Gravity” is impressive. She’s quick to credit both God and her own gumption for her success and not fate or luck, never comfortable embracing the blond bimbo label. “I can’t say I’ve come this far with my guitar on pure, dumb luck / That’s not to say I know it all…”
Parton’s love for God and Country comes through strong on this, her biggest and best single of the 2000s, blending contemporary country-lite with a gospel choir and the singer-songwriter personability that makes Parton such a special performer.
(Here You Come Again, 1977)
“Here You Come Again” is must top the list of best Dolly Parton ditties on principle—It might just be the best pop song of the 20th century. This song defined the archetype that every crossover country/pop star that followed would strive to fit—and none would even come close until two decades later with the Shania Twain era. It’s sappy, mournful pop constructed atop a basic piano melody, furnished with strings and synth emblematic of the late 1970s, and with a slide guitar to keep things truly country.
The genius of the song—one of the few that Parton did not pen herself—is in the key changes that match the mood of her schizophrenic feelings. On the first verse, Parton’s agony is palpable over the fact that the object of her unrequited love has shown up again. Next, the key changes over the chorus, which is brimming with hope. As Parton bemoans that “All you gotta do is smile that smile / And there go all my defenses”, the progression gets brighter and warmer. She returns to the verse again, as if coming back down to earth—but not all the way. Each verse is a musical half-step higher than the last, which the listener interprets as more and more joyful.
The song begins with loathing and finishes swept up in the ecstasy of attraction—on the same lyrics and same chord progression, but now in a higher key. It doesn’t just describe a familiar experience, but aurally feels like one. Parton’s effortlessly-genuine soprano sells it, kaleidoscoping through agony, optimism, trepidation, and infatuation, each on a gargantuan scale.
This is the kind of song that swallows you whole; here it comes again, and there you go.