We revisit Parton’s 13th record on the 50th anniversary of its release
The album that gave us not one, but two of the best songs ever penned is now 50. When classic albums hit big birthdays, often the conversation surrounding them leans in the direction of: “You’d never know it!”. But Jolene doesn’t sound modern, and whilst ahead of its time in some aspects, the charm of the record doesn’t lie in the fact that it could still hold up as a new release. Jolene feels like a collection of songs passed down through generations; folk music penned by unnamed, long-forgotten authors and collected by Dolly Parton, rather than written almost entirely by herself in the early seventies. Parton is such a rare songwriter because of how effectively she is able to remove her voice from her lyrics, creating universal, emotive stories that speak to everyone – in the tradition that all the very best country music follows.
Title track ‘Jolene’ remains on almost every list of the best singles of all time because it manages to showcase Parton at her very best whilst at the same time flourishing separately from her. ‘Jolene’ is a wonderful song no matter who sings it (in fact, Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus did a cover back in 2012 that’s well worth a listen). Parton is expert at making every lyric count – in less than three minutes we’re immersed in the world of a housewife desperately pleading with a young temptress not to break up her marriage. The idea that a woman can ‘take’ a man from another might feel a little outdated, if not for the surprisingly respectful way in which Parton’s housewife addresses Jolene. There is very little judgement or anger – rather just an open-hearted desperation, and Parton’s vulnerable vocals pair beautifully with the urgent instrumentation.
Jolene the album boasts another massive track: ‘I Will Always Love You’, thought to be penned for Porter Wagoner as Parton prepared to leave his TV show. The Whitney Houston cover may have outstripped the original, but Parton’s version is wonderful – worlds away vocally, but it’s hard to say definitively which is better. The sorrow here is sweeter, and Parton’s vocals are tenderly encouraging. It can be hard to sell a spoken word section in a country song without tipping the whole thing over into sickly territory, but Parton’s message to Wagoner feels so genuine and warm that it never becomes saccharine.
This is far from a concept album, and yet this parting of the ways does feel very much at the heart of it, projection or not. Break up tracks ‘When Someone Wants To Leave’ and ‘Living On Memories Of You’ are obvious tie-ins, but elsewhere on the record Parton also sings about freedom and running out into nature with open arms (‘River Of Happiness’, ‘Early Morning Breeze’). There’s a strong sense of this being a real bid for independence, and one that the singer is more than ready to make. Parton closes out the record with ‘It Must Be You’, a cheerful, sunshiny track about two people who belong together, no matter where else life takes them. Parton’s 13th album feels like a significant shift towards a new era – appropriately so, for a record containing two songs that would immortalise her.