Dolly Parton’s top 20 songs, ranked, featuring themes of betrayal, bluegrass, and her persona as “Backwoods Barbie”.

Dolly Parton’s top 20 songs, ranked, featuring themes of betrayal, bluegrass, and her persona as “Backwoods Barbie”.

What is the reason for your appearance in this place looking like that? (1989)

Some Dolly Parton songs evoke deep emotions, while others showcase her glamorous persona. “Why’d You Come in Here…” falls into the latter group, with its themes of desire, humor (“you could stop traffic in a gunny sack”), irresistible melody, and playful energy.

19. Just Someone I Used to Know (1969)

Traditionally, it is believed that Parton’s success truly blossomed after ending her musical collaboration with Porter Wagoner. While this holds some truth, it should not be overlooked that they created some exceptional music together, including the heartfelt song “Just Someone I Used to Know” which reflects on the enduring regret of a former couple after their breakup.

18. Tennessee Homesick Blues (1984)

The film Rhinestone, featuring Parton and Sylvester Stallone, was a failure both in reviews and at the box office. However, the song with its title referencing Bob Dylan, lyrics about escaping New York, and a mix of Parton’s Appalachian background and yodelling, managed to come out unscathed from the wreckage, despite the polished production.

17. Backwoods Barbie (2008)

This is essentially a modernized version of Parton’s 1967 song, “Dumb Blonde,” which was her personal mission statement. “Backwoods Barbie” is both musically captivating and lyrically sharp, with lines such as “Too much makeup, too much hair / Don’t be deceived, the goods are all there.”

16. Wildflowers (1987)

One notable aspect of Trio, the initial album Parton collaborated on with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, is its use of traditional Appalachian sounds, including a prominent autoharp. The harmonies are flawless, and the lyrics explore the conflicting emotions of leaving one’s hometown to live recklessly: a mix of regret and defiance.

Dolly in 1978View image in fullscreen

15. Two Doors Down (1977)

Two Doors Down began life as a straightforward pop-country track from the Here You Come Again album. Then a cover by Zella Lehr was a hit single and Parton refigured her original into an odd, and oddly appealing, country/soul/disco hybrid. Take your pick: either version is infectiously exuberant.

14. The Seeker (1975)

The most famous of Parton’s songs with a Christian theme, The Seeker is remarkable because of the contrast between its upbeat rhythm and melody and the evident sense of spiritual despair in the lyrics: “I am a vessel without purpose … I am a flawed individual … you are my only hope.”

The song “To Daddy” was recorded in 1976 and released in 1995.

Parton and Wagoner got into another disagreement, this time because he disapproved of the message in her song that seemed to promote leaving unhappy marriages. However, the song was later covered by Emmylou Harris and showcases Parton’s skill for storytelling. The final verse reveals a surprising twist and empowering message, changing the mood of the song from resignation to freedom.

12. Love Is Like a Butterfly (1974)

It may be difficult for older British television viewers to hear “Love Is Like a Butterfly” without immediately thinking of Wendy Craig’s character trying to resist her desire to cheat in the sitcom Butterflies created by Carla Lane. This song was Parton’s initial number one hit after her separation from Wagoner and it’s easy to see why – the gentle accompaniment complements a charming melody.

11. Just Because I’m a Woman (1968)

At the start, Dolly is confidently speaking in a tough manner. She may have done wrong, but so has the other person, so don’t try to lecture her. The standout lines are, “Instead of pitying yourself when you see me / Consider the shame you may have caused someone else.” That’s harsh!

10. Little Sparrow (2001)

The album titled “The Grass Is Blue” by Parton, which is a nod to bluegrass music, received highly positive reviews. Her next album may even surpass it. The title track, a revamped version of the traditional Appalachian folk song “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies,” is emotionally stirring and has an eerie quality due to its dry and minimalist sound.

9. 9 to 5 (1980)

With its beat influenced by Parton’s tapping her nails on her guitar, 9 to 5 may be the pinnacle of her time as a “pop” artist, but at its core, it is a country song: the words pay homage to oppressed laborers; one can envision it without its polished production and instead accompanied by an acoustic guitar and pedal steel.

8. My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973)

The magnificent main song of an album inspired by Parton’s childhood, My Tennessee Mountain Home focuses more on embracing the simplicity of her upbringing rather than showcasing the poverty she experienced (similar to In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)). The tone of the music reflects this, starting off minimalistic and gradually becoming joyfully uplifting.

7. Here You Come Again (1977)

It was no shock to anyone when Parton shifted her focus to pop music – even her first single, Busy Signal from 1965, had elements of the 60s girl group style in addition to country. However, the way she executed this transition is impressive. Here You Come Again is an irresistible blend of soft rock and pop.

6. The Bargain Store (1975)

Dolly Parton possesses a multitude of talents, one of which is her skill in crafting lyrics. This is evident in her use of an extended metaphor in the song “The Bargain Store,” where she compares herself to a secondhand shop. Despite the repetition of this metaphor, it never becomes tiresome or excessive, instead displaying her cleverness and evoking a sense of deep emotion.

5. Down from Dover (1970)

The portrayal of an abandoned unwed mother giving birth to a stillborn child in Down from Dover sparked controversy. Wagoner advised Parton not to release it, saying “I can’t get any more depressing than this, can I?” Despite its heavy sadness, the song is poignant rather than overly sentimental.

Dolly Parton and Kenny RogersView image in fullscreen

4. Islands in the Stream (1983)

The Bee Gees originally intended for “Islands in the Stream” to be a duet in the Motown style of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. However, when Dolly Parton and the late Kenny Rogers recorded it, they gave the song a new life. The Gibb brothers’ songwriting is at its strongest here, but it’s the heartfelt vocals that truly make the song stand out.

“Forever I Will Love You” (1974)

Whitney Houston’s rendition of the song holds the record for the best-selling single by a female artist in the United States, but Parton’s original has its own unique charm: it is more intimate and heartfelt, serving as a bittersweet goodbye to Wagoner, whose fame she had surpassed long ago. If you prefer emotions that are relatable rather than grandiose, Parton’s version may resonate more deeply.

2. Coat of Many Colours (1971)

This emotionally powerful Parton song is inspired by a true event: a poor mother creates a coat for her daughter, Dolly, out of various colored rags while teaching her the story of Joseph’s coat from the Bible. Dolly faces teasing from her peers, but she remains resilient. The lesson to be learned is that poverty is a choice.

1. Jolene (1973)

Jolene is not the pinnacle of Dolly Parton’s music in terms of excellence, but it remains her most widely recognized song. It has inspired countless cover versions, from artists ranging from the White Stripes to Lil Nas X, as well as a series of response tracks. This could be attributed to the authenticity of the emotions portrayed in the song – a desperate plea mixed with a passive-aggressive shrug (“whatever you decide to do, Jolene”) – or perhaps it is the captivating melody that somehow manages to convey both urgency and ease. The song’s simplicity, with its stripped-down arrangement and live atmosphere, lacking a bridge or middle eight, is what truly packs an emotional punch.