Underneath all the hair and makeup (and Botox and silicone), the self-deprecating humor and effervescent personality, lies an uncanny talent that has led Dolly Parton to become the most honored woman in country music history. In a career that has spanned almost six decades (and counting), the iconic entertainer has charted 25 Number One songs (a record for a female country artist), 41 Top 10 country albums (a record for any artist) and has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. And while it’s classic, universally-beloved hits such as “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5” and “Here You Come Again” that were the biggest boosters of those incomparable numbers, her vast catalog of mostly self-penned tunes contains some buried treasures that her biggest fans know by heart — and hold close to their hearts — just as much. We count down the Top 20 songs that radio may have overlooked but that collectively encapsulate the musical brilliance of Dolly Parton.
No, it’s not a parody of her ubiquitous “I Will Always Love You,” as it was written and recorded six years before that classic. This is Parton, zipping her way through one of the funniest songs she’s ever written or recorded, casting herself as a black-gold-digging opportunist who wants to get her hands on a Texas millionaire’s oily fortune. Unlike the real singer, who grew up poor but worked her way out of poverty to become a successful entertainer, businesswoman and philanthropist, the song’s character, who also comes from humble beginnings, “said I’d find a rich man and love my way to fame.” She gets points for honesty, at least. (Today, that kind of thing would get you a reality show.) Parton featured the tune, penned with her uncle, Bill Owens, on her first RCA album, 1968’s Just Because I’m a Woman. Since, she’s occasionally included it in her live shows as part of a “silly songs” medley.
This Tex-Mex border classic has been recorded dozens of times since the late 1960s, most famously by Freddy Fender, who worked all kinds of crossover wizardry — including pop, country, Spanish and English — into his iconic 1974 version. While “Teardrops” is a tall mountain for any singer to climb, Parton glides to the summit with ease in this understated version from her covers collection, Treasures. It doesn’t hurt to have David Hidalgo drop by for a welcome cameo, accompanied by accordion and flamenco flourishes. But what closes the deal is Parton’s own emotional quaver, which is a perfect fit for this doomed devotional. She will always love you, indeed.
There's nothing worse than being alone — especially when a party is raging two doors down. Don't let the upbeat vibe of this 1978 tune fool you: There's some serious heartbreak going on in the narrator's apartment, where she's crying away a lost love to the soundtrack of others having fun. But Parton replaces the sadness with a devil-may-care decision to crash the party and find a new man. She's successful in her pursuit (Would anyone think otherwise?), and returns to her own place, two doors down, with Mr. Right Now in tow. Who knows what the morning after brings, but on this night, a warm body cancels out any future regrets.
Parton has plenty of great records suitable for church. But while "Peace Train" projects evangelical faith in the possibility of redemption, Junior Vasquez's majestic 13-minute remix adapts it for a different kind of Sunday morning service. After two minutes of build, the New York DJ cuts in Ladysmith Black Mambazo's warm background vocals, and three minutes later the track slows while Parton delivers her Cat Stevens-penned lyrics. It then explodes with a swirl of crisp house drums, overlapping synth riffs and the singer's chopped syllables — the peace train has arrived earlier than expected. Vasquez often played the song after the sun came up on all-nighters at clubs like Twilo and Arena (hence the title), and in September 2007 The Advocate ranked it as one of the summer's top dance hits.
“Life was free and simple” for Gypsy, Joe and the protagonist of this 1969 song, whose melody is one of the simplest of Parton’s catalog — letting the spotlight shine on lyrics that play out like a movie. “Gypsy” is the name of a free-spirited woman’s dog, a faithful companion to her and her beloved beau, Joe, as they live their penniless but joyous lives. Thumbing rides from town to town, Gypsy is killed by a speeding car, after which Joe finally tells the narrator that he loves her. . . and then dies himself. All sad stuff, but it’s what the narrator does next that makes the listener realize that beneath that bubbly blonde exterior, Parton has a dark side. Pitch-black dark to be exact, at least when it comes to some of her Hollywood-worthy story-songs.
Thirty-five years after Parton launched her glorious tirade against a potential man-stealer named "Jolene," she actually made us feel for the other woman. In "Cologne," from 2008's underappreciated Backwoods Barbie album, she sings from the perspective of a mistress so hopelessly in love with her stolen man that she helps him keep their affair secret — letting her favorite cologne go unused so that it won't rub off on him before he leaves her bed for his wife's. All "takes two to tango" notions aside, the emotional lyrics and ethereal vocals help paint the protagonist as the victim — and a relatable one at that. For her, this is a love so deep that it trumps her morals, though they're weighing heavily on her mind. "Oh but I never meant for this to be," Parton sings. "It wasn't in my heart to cheat/Love has a nature all it's own/So I willingly gave up cologne."
Originally written by Parton for the 1984 country camp classic Rhinestone, in which she costarred with Sylvester Stallone, this song is the epitome of a guilty pleasure. While the film was a flop in every way — an experiment gone wrong at the hands of Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay — the soundtrack, composed by Parton, prevailed with two Top 10 country singles. These did not include "Drinkenstein," however, a tune Stallone performs in the movie in an attempt to forge an overnight country career under the guidance of Parton's coach character. Undeniably, "Drinkenstein" is cheesy — its lyrics describe a monster (an alcoholic) created by Budweiser in a "lab-uh-tor-i-ee" — but just like a B horror movie, you can't turn it off.
Parton's delicate, impassioned vocal and her concern for the welfare of children are just two of the elements that shine through on this sweet, lullaby-like tune from the 1993 treasure, Slow Dancing With the Moon. "Baby thinks God is just a curse word/Never said a prayer 'cause he's never been taught" is one of more soul-searing lines holding up this track's powerful message. Some gorgeous guitar work and the faint, lovely whisper of Paddy Corcoran's uilleann pipes add to the song's sweetness. The rich backing vocals of legendary Irish singer Maura O'Connell and the great Carl Jackson here, plus other tracks on the LP featuring Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart and several others, prove that some babies grow up surrounded by loving, talented friends.
In 1968, Parton presented one of her greatest vocal performances of all time with this emotional ballad from the Just Because I’m a Woman album. It’s the story of a couple who share their first kiss on a bridge, and as “desire swept through us both” they end up in a nearby meadow. You can pretty much guess what happens next. The next time she’s at the bridge, the narrator is alone, but also with child. And in one of the most dramatic, breathtaking finishes to a country song since Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” we’re left to try and guess how it all ends.
Recorded the year she graduated high school, "The Love You Gave" — the B-side to the second single of her career, 1962's "It's Sure Gonna Hurt" — is a rare relic from Parton's days as a wannabe bubblegum pop singer. There's no twang here. Instead, the 18 year-old pours on the charm as a heartbroken kid who's crying "lonely teardrops night and day since you've been gone." At two minutes, the song is about as brief as her pop career, which ended with the release of her first country single, "Dumb Blonde," in 1967.
While Parton isn't always cheerful (at least not in song), her innate feistiness usually keeps her from sounding hopelessly glum – except on her fourth solo album, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, which was less than a merry affair overall. That especially goes for her rendition of this morose lament by Joe South (whose original version won a pair of Grammy Awards). The country icon's version of "Games People Play" substitutes jaunty piano for the original's jangly guitar, with Parton singing through clenched teeth about people who waste their lives with silly games "'til they're covered up with flowers in the back of a black limousine." Just for good measure, she hollers the line about "to hell with hate."
Those familiar with "Early Morning Breeze" usually know the version that appears between the title track and "I Will Always Love You" on 1974's Jolene. The original, a side two highlight on Coat of Many Colors, follows the same flower-covered path, only with a lighter arrangement that seems to drift in the winds named in the title. The song is easy and calm, but just as a funk-tinged bassline anchors it on land, a couplet in the second verse places Parton's mystical stroll within the harsh world that awaits its conclusion: "Misty-eyed I look about the meadow where I stray," she sings, "for its there I find the courage to greet the coming day."
On Parton's 36th album — the second in her turn-of-the-century bluegrass trilogy — the covers got most of the attention. Parton tackled everything from Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" to Collective Soul's grunge-era hit "Shine," both done up as very convincing bluegrass hoedowns. But after the shock-value novelty of those tracks wear off, what really lingers from Little Sparrow is its title track. Featuring harmony vocalists Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, A-list players like Chris Thile and a tune derived from "The Wayfaring Stranger," everything about "Little Sparrow" is pretty much perfect. And even when Parton proclaims herself the victim of a "cold, false-hearted lover," the tremble in her voice gives her away. You just know that guy is not going to get away with it.
While the title track of Coat of Many Colors remains the 1971 album's most enduring and recognizable tune, the first-ever version of "My Blue Tears" ranks as a close second. Although directed at a happily singing bluebird and a bright yellow sun, Parton wants nothing to do with them, preferring a good, self-pitying cry instead. With its old-time folk ballad feel, the song is vintage Carter Family stuff, distinguished by the incomparable vocalist singing harmony with herself (an RCA studio technique few others were trying at the time). It made many appearances on future albums, too, with an acoustic demo showing up on the 2007 reissue of Coat of Many Colors and a harmony-heavy version, with backup vocals from Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, making an appearance on Ronstadt's 1982 LP, Get Closer. Parton also revamped the song for her bluegrass disc, Little Sparrow, in 2001.
In October 1977, nearly 20 albums into her already extraordinary career, Parton unleashed Here You Come Again, an LP whose title track became her biggest pop hit to date. Despite appearances by L.A. session musicians (including guitarist David Lindley and one-time Mothers of Invention member Ian Underwood) and some slick production, the album was hardly a slap in the face to her country audience. Still, new Parton fans were likely taken aback with the LP's heart-tugging tale of "Me and Little Andy" (the B-side of "Here You Come Again"). During the song, while a storm rages outside, the singer opens her door to find a little girl named Sandy, who's "not more than six or seven," clutching her shivering puppy and looking for a place for both of them to sleep. Parton sings Sandy's nursery-rhyme-inspired lines in a little girl voice that's creepy, heartbreaking and just so irresistibly Dolly.
This dazzling, inspirational number from 1998's Hungry Again LP spotlights Parton giving the enduring melody of "Amazing Grace" a set of fresh lyrics. With a gospel group – and eventually an entire congregational choir – behind her, she sings of sharing "the greatest gift: the gift of life, the gift of love divine." Parton no doubt felt the presence of her grandfather, Jacob ("Jake") Robert Owens, as she recorded this in the little hometown church where he was a Pentecostal preacher. The pair even sang "Amazing Grace" together on Parton's late Eighties variety series. In April 1998, four months before Hungry Again was released, Parton sang this song at the memorial service for her friend and fellow country-music icon, Tammy Wynette. Again, the setting was a church: the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music.
Parton's career was sliding into what seemed like an irreversible decline when she reconnected with her audience — as well as her muse — on The Grass Is Blue, a smartly executed roots move that was both acclaimed (it won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album) and presciently popular (Grass predated the runaway hit soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? by a year). Along with covers by everyone from Johnny Cash to Billy Joel, the album presented a good reminder that Parton hadn't lost her touch as either a writer or singer. "I'm perfectly fine and I don’t miss you/The sky is green and the grass is blue," she sings, and you don't believe her for a second. But only because you're not supposed to.
Parton is infamous for her bawdy sense of humor and willingness to make herself the butt of a joke. She seldom shows that side of herself during her albums, though, which makes this onstage goof a rarity. Recorded in front of an adoring Dollywood throng for her live album Heartsongs: Live From Home, "PMS Blues" finds Dolly planting tongue firmly in cheek and playing the burlesque-belter role to the hilt — and beyond. Equal parts carney barker and fire-and-brimstone preacher ("Like the devil takin' over my body!!"), she vamps on through to the other side as the crowd eggs her on. Seriously, don’t tread on her.
When Parton and duo partner Porter Wagoner recorded their 1968 Just the Two of Us LP, it included one of the most unsettling country songs of all time. A deceased child's parents mourn their little girl and put an eternal flame on her grave because, as the title says, "Jeannie's Afraid of the Dark." More unusual and controversial tunes from Parton followed, including "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," about a woman who becomes a prostitute in New Orleans, and "Evening Shade," in which a group of orphans set fire to an orphanage, killing the headmistress. But on her fifth LP, The Fairest of Them All, Parton takes a pregnant, unmarried girl, kicks her out of her parents' house and keeps her waiting for the father to hurry "down from Dover" so he can be there when their child is born. By the end of the song, someone doesn't survive. Control over your emotions won't either.
"The Pain of Loving You" first appeared on 1971's Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton album, Two of a Kind, and was never released as a single (although it did rate a B-side). Playing second-fiddle foil to Wagoner, Parton sounded resigned to her fate in an irritated sort of way. But then she revived "Pain" for Trio, her 1987 super-session album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and those three angels took the song all the way home to the deep, dark mournful pathos at its core. This version is so perfectly, heartbreakingly beautiful, you can't imagine "The Pain of Loving You" ever existed any other way.