After writing my recent post about Dolly Parton’s 1974 album Jolene, I thought I would delve a little deeper into the title song and contemplate its influence on country music and beyond. Of course this song has generated endless cover versions from artists as wide ranging as The White Stripes, Reba McEntire, Strawberry Switchblade and Olivia Newton John but what I’m interested in is how Jolene has inspired the songwriting of others.
Jolene connected with listeners because it was a nakedly vulnerable song, full of fear, desperation, panic and even paranoia. Partly what makes this song memorable is the simplicity of that repeated use of Jolene, sung over thirty times and the ominous beat underneath. But it is the characters that Dolly created who really make this song so iconic. We sympathise with the narrator because everyone has doubted themselves or felt that stab of jealousy when your beloved notices another. And the title character is so vividly drawn, with her ‘flaming locks of auburn hair…ivory skin and eyes of emerald green’ that you can’t help wanting to know more about Jolene’s story.
Here is a brief list of songs, some which are written in direct response to Jolene, others which just echo this modern classic but all of which owe a debt to Dolly.
Jennifer Nettles – That Girl
There are two songs in Jennifer Nettles career which make reference to the story of Jolene. The first was the heartbreaking acoustic Sugarland ballad ‘Stay’ where the Jolene character begs the man not to leave and return to his girlfriend. Later in her career she would return to the Jolene scenario in her solo recording ‘That Girl’. In this song, the narrator is caught out by the lying, cheating man, just the same as the narrator. Soon she realises her mistake, turning the Jolene lyrics on their head, It wasn’t my name on his lips / No he didn’t call for me / he didn’t say Jolene. This is one of the few songs which directly reference Dolly’s character, making the connection between the songs clear. The rest of the song imagines Jolene calling up the girl and explaining it was an honest mistake and she didn’t want to be a home wrecker or be known as ‘that woman’. Cam would go on to use this exact premise for her response too, both songs challenging the listener’s expectations and sympathies.
Jennifer Nettles explained the connection in an interview with Billboard magazine, “This song has kind of ended up being ‘The Ballad of Jolene’. It wasn’t intended that way, as the concept was saying ‘I don’t want to end up being that girl.’ This woman has obviously been bamboozled, and it wasn’t her plan going in. When she found out there was somebody else, she called and told her that it wasn’t really her fault…That idea presented itself of ‘What if it was Jolene calling?” Nettles’ connection with Dolly doesn’t end there, as she recently appeared onscreen playing her mother, Avie Lee Parton, in the Coat of Many Colors movies.
Cam – Diane
The most recent of the songs on this list is Diane from lovely Cam, who like Jennifer Nettles casts herself as an innocent and apologetic Jolene. On Dolly’s song we are never quite sure if the man has cheated or not, but in Cam’s interpretation they had an affair but Jolene didn’t know the man was married. In the video for the song the ‘Jolene’ character arranges to meet ‘Diane’ in order to apologise and make amends. ‘I promise I didn’t know he was your man,’ she sings. The name ‘Diane’ is repeated in a similarly pleading way to how Jolene’s name is sung by Dolly. The beat is frenetic, mimicking the heartbeat of the narrator who is panicking about how to make it up to Diane. It’s a thoughtful and honest interpretation of what you might think and feel in such a predicament. In the end Cam’s narrator admits that both women are victims, ‘How could we be such fools?’
Cam has spoken about Jolene’s influence on Diane saying, ‘It’s the reverse of what Dolly did, but I definitely feel that Dolly has done such a good job with keeping that so vulnerable, she’s pleading with the other woman instead of being angry and that’s what’s similar in ‘Diane.’ I didn’t want it to be angry or about slut-shaming or bashing other women. I wanted it to be empowering, like people sticking together by telling the truth and having that integrity.” Dolly’s subtle storytelling skills have clearly been studied by Cam, who calls her ‘the most brilliant.’
Kirsty MacColl – Caroline
Back in 1994 Kirsty MacColl took on the role of the Jolene’s character in her response song ‘Caroline’, proving that Dolly’s reach and influence extended well beyond the country music genre.
Unlike the pleas of ignorance of the first two songs on this list, in this story Jolene has indeed knowingly stolen Caroline’s man. She admits ‘it was wrong from the start’ and now Jolene is doing her best to avoid her ex best friend, with the repeating hook of the song being, ‘I don’t want to see Caroline’. She knows it’s selfish and shameful, the guilt is haunting her but in the end her heart wins.
MacColl spoke about her songwriting explaining that she was ‘always looking to do something from the point of view that hasn’t been done-in from overkill.’ She also went on to say that she wanted to reclaim some power back for women, explaining, ‘I don’t write songs about women as victims.’ Maybe Dolly’s narrator was a victim, but her admission of defeat was what made the song so powerful and conversely MacColl’s admission of victory is also what also makes her song so great.
Little Big Town – Girl Crush
From this list you can see how Jolene’s character has inspired much of the response songs, with many of the songwriters taking on the perspective of that character. However there are some other songs in modern country which instead use Dolly’s vulnerable character as their inspiration instead. On ‘Girl Crush’ by Little Big Town and written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna the narrator becomes obsessed with the woman who has taken her man, imagining becoming her, or even possessing her, so the man would ‘want her just as much’.
The vulnerability and obsession in this song is similar to Dolly’s song, as is the ominous hypnotic sound (this style is a slowed down waltz instead of a seventies groove). Perhaps the influence is more subtle or subconscious than some of the other songs on this list but you can still hear the echo of Jolene.
Brandy Clark – Hold My Hand
The achingly beautiful ballad ‘Hold My Hand’ by Brandy Clark, from her 12 Stories album, is my personal favourite song from this list and surely one of the best country songs of the twenty first century.
In the song the narrator sees her partner’s ex-girlfriend, a Jolene-like raven haired, green eyed seductress who ‘could steal most any woman’s man’. Instantly the narrator feels inferior and vulnerable. She looks to her partner for reassurance and a sign of his affection, singing ‘This would be a real good time / to hold my hand.’ By the end of the song, just like on Jolene, we’re not sure if these heartfelt pleas are answered or if the girl is cut adrift in favour of the siren.
Brandy performed a stunning version of this song live at the Grammys with Dwight Yoakam, which showed the eternal power of a classic country song to break your heart in two. You can also trace Clark’s use of wry humour in her other songs back to Dolly’s influence.
I have made a playlist of these songs for you below, including a few more – like ‘Dancing’ from Kylie which uses a guitar line inspired by Jolene. If you know of any others inspired by the music or lyrics of Jolene please let me know in the comments or on social media and I will add them to the playlist.
Under Her Influence is an occasional series which explores the influence of important songs by women artists. The previous post in this series was about ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ by Bobbie Gentry.