The Romantic Rivalry Behind Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

Nobody is immune to feelings of inadequacy, not even the glamorous, talented Dolly Parton. Dolly wrote the song “Jolene” in 1973 from the perspective of a woman who is worried about another woman stealing her man, and the lyrics take on a desperate, pleading tone that fits perfectly with the minor-key guitar picking. While the song means different things to different people, to Dolly it was inspired by two real-life events. Before she broke through as a solo artist, she was part of a duo with Porter Wagoner, host of The Porter Wagoner Show. Dolly was prone to hanging around after the broadcasts to sign autographs, and one day she met an 8-year-old girl whose red hair and striking looks caught her attention. When the singer asked the little girl her name, the response was, “Jolene.” When Dolly heard the name, she said, “That’s pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.” Dolly made good on her promise, but there was another real-life Jolene of sorts. At one point in her marriage to contractor Carl Dean, a redheaded bank teller took a shine to Dean, paying extra attention to him. Dean apparently liked it, though he never considered cheating. Dolly explained that it turned out to become a joke between she and her husband. One day she said to Carl, “Hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank, and I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money." She said the song might sound like a dreadful story, but the basis for it was actually quite innocent.