Valentunes Day: Dolly Parton – “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”

Happy ValenTUNES Day! (We know, and we’re not sorry.) Today, first-time contributor Jason writes a special Valentines Day post about two classic Dolly Parton songs. Enjoy!

Originally, I planned this post for Tunesday, and because it was for the week of Valentine’s Day, I began thinking about love songs and songs I love. One that automatically jumped to mind was Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” However, I can’t think about it without also thinking about another one of her compositions, a song about an old red-headed gal by the name of “Jolene.” These two songs complement each other so well that I feel I have to write about them at the same time. They’re two of my favorites, in the respect that I never get tired of hearing them, and I never get tired of talking about them.

First, I like the lyrical and thematic similarities between these two songs. While “I Will Always Love You” (“IWALY”) deals with the end of a bittersweet relationship, “Jolene” focuses on a relationship that may come to a bitter end. While Dolly pleads in “IWALY” to leave a relationship, she pleads to remain in one in “Jolene.” In one she sings, “If I should stay I would only be in your way,” while in the other she sings of a woman who stands in her way. Dolly cleverly shows in these songs the many emotions within love. I like how in “IWALY” Dolly plays up the notion “if you love me, set me free,” whereas in “Jolene” she pleads “if you know I love him then why won’t you let us be.” Dolly’s words, as once pointed out by the legendary Connie Smith, are never wasted. She knows the power that words hold, and that’s one reason why her songs are so great. In fact, Dolly considers songwriting both her first love and her greatest attribute. She once told Larry King during an interview that she thinks of herself as a writer who sings.

Dolly considers her songs her children, and I like to think of these two as her twins. She actually wrote “Jolene” and “IWALY” on the same day, and they were both first released on the 1974 RCA album Jolene. There’s a story I once heard on PBS about the day that Dolly wrote these two great songs. She’s often said that when she writes a good song she can feel it and when that happens she likes to celebrate that achievement by making a batch of chicken and dumplings. When she was asked by the interviewer about writing these two songs, Dolly said she made two batches of dumplings that day.

Both of these songs have remained popular and relevant for over four decades. They were each number one hits for Dolly, and “IWALY” even did it twice, in both 1974 and again in 1982 when she re-recorded it for The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas soundtrack. Then Whitney Houston took “IWALY” to the top of the charts in 1992 after she recorded her version for The Bodyguard soundtrack. Both songs have gone on to be covered by dozens of artists, a sign of their long lasting appeal. Even Dolly herself has re-recorded new versions of these songs. In fact, her 1995 album Something Special brought the songs together again with newly recorded versions.

One more thing to note about these songs is that they have great back stories. It’s no secret that Dolly wrote “IWALY” about her duet partner and musical mentor Porter Wagoner. Dolly and Porter had been working together as a duet team for over five years when she penned “IWALY.” She had expected to only stay with him for a short time when their partnership began. However, the money and fame were so good that Dolly agreed to stay five years. At the end of those five years, she wanted to go off and try to achieve her dreams of super-stardom as a solo artist. By that point their relationship and popularity had progressed so far that Porter wouldn’t hear of her leaving. So, Dolly thought to herself, “How do I make this hard-headed man understand me?” and she knew the best way was to sing it to him in a song. Porter, after all, was endlessly fascinated with Dolly’s abilities as a songwriter, so she knew this would do the trick. Their partnership would finally end in 1976 when Dolly cut all ties with Porter and begin her crossover into mainstream pop culture. Porter once complimented Dolly on “IWALY” by saying “You sing it just sorta like you mean it,” to which Dolly replied “Well, I did sorta mean it.”

That sincerity in “IWALY” comes through similarly in “Jolene.” For this song Dolly took a situation between her husband Carl Dean and a bank teller. Carl liked going and flirting with the bank teller, and Dolly would joke to him “Now I know we ain’t got that much money. What are you doing hanging out at the bank?” to which Carl usually replied “I’m going to see my girl.” So, Dolly thought it was a great idea for a song but she had to have a name, and she couldn’t use the bank teller’s name. Then one night while signing autographs after a show with Porter, a pretty little red-haired girl came up to Dolly and asked her to sign something. When the little girl told Dolly her name was Jolene, Dolly knew she’d found the title to the song. She told Jolene she loved that name and she was going to write a song about it, so if she ever heard it she’d know it was about her. Though Dolly never heard from that little girl again, she never forgot her and no one would ever forget “Jolene.”

Well, I could go on and on about these songs, discussing everything I could think of about them but I better not. I just wanted to list a few reasons why I like them so much. I wanted to keep it simple and direct, and I simply love these songs. So, just think of this as my Valentine to two great love songs that I will always love.

Jason, a freelance journalist, is a fan of Walt Disney, Dolly Parton and Stephen King among so many others.