When this song was released I was a teenage boy. Apart from a magnificent bust, there was nothing about Dolly Parton that interested me. There are not many good things about growing older, but one of them is the ability to reassess songs of the past which have already been distilled through time’s harsh filter. “Jolene” is one of those songs.
The premise for the song is pure country, and not to be found normally in pop and rock. It is the tale of an ordinary woman who fears her husband is obsessed with a prettier rival, who will take her man “just because (she) can”. Parton claims that the idea was based on a true experience, an attractive bank teller who flirted with her husband when he called in. At two minutes forty- two seconds it is an astonishing recording.
Sung beautifully, the lyric is perfect, with easy, seductive rhymes and an insistent rhythm which suggests an inevitability that she will lose her man – but she is imploring Jolene to spare her the anguish of that outcome. It is a fabulous song for a woman to sing because it is awash with emotion; jealousy, despair, love, fear, hope, envy and agony. She does not do her rival down, instead, she laments her own perceived inferiority.
Widely covered, but never bettered, most new singers manage to extract something new from the song. Parton also likes to duet on it, sometimes with god daughter Miley Cyrus. But once again, she is always the boss in the singing stakes. I am not a fan of the bulk of American C&W which I find generally maudlin, introspective, deeply conservative, and irritating. But at its best, it celebrates the best of the Folk tradition. “Jolene” is just such a song.