The Romantic Rivalry Behind Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’

Two real-life events converged to inspire the lyrics and message behind Dolly Parton’s iconic song.


Nobody is immune to feelings of inadequacy. Even a glamorous, talented, universally beloved woman like Dolly Parton is liable to feel outgunned by a rival, and the country superstar admits as much on her 1973 classic “Jolene.”

Parton wrote the song from the perspective of a woman who’s worried a beautiful seductress is fixing to steal her man, and the lyrics take on a desperate, pleading tone that fits perfectly with the minor-key guitar picking.

“Jolene” topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 1974—it’s one of 25 songs Parton has taken to No. 1 on that tally—and has since inspired covers by everyone from The White Stripes to Beyoncé, who delivers an updated version on her 2024 album Cowboy Carter. The song means different things to different people, but to Parton, it was inspired by two real-life events.

The Real Jolene

Before Parton broke through as a solo artist, she was part of a duo with Porter Wagoner, host of The Porter Wagoner Show, a popular TV show that ran from 1960 to 1981. While appearing on the program in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Parton was prone to sticking around after broadcasts and signing autographs. One day, she met an 8-year-old girl whose striking looks caught her attention.

"And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph,” Parton told NPR. “I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’ And I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.’ I said, ‘That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’”

And Dolly made good on that promise, though when she sat down to write the lyrics in 1972—possibly on the same day she penned the smash “I Will Always Love You”—she wasn’t just thinking about the cute kid with the unusual name.

The Other Real Jolene

In 1966, Parton married paving contractor Carl Thomas Dean, and they’re still together to this day. By all accounts, theirs is a happy marriage, though at one point early on, there may have been another woman angling to play home-wrecker.

As Parton has explained over the years, there was a redheaded bank teller who took a shine to Dean and paid him extra attention. Dean apparently liked it, though he was never actually thinking of cheating.

“It was kinda like a running joke between us—when I was saying, ‘Hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank,’” Parton told NPR. “‘I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money.’ So it’s really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one.”

Other Versions

“Jolene” is said to be Parton’s most-covered song, and just three years after the original dropped, Olivia Newton-John released a faithful version on her album Come On Over. Nearly a quarter-century later, the garage-rock duo The White Stripes served up a cover of “Jolene” as the B-side to their 2000 single “Hello Operator.” They also included a live version on the 2004 DVD Under the Blackpool Lights, and that recording became a Top 20 hit in the U.K. 

Other artists to put their stamp on “Jolene” include goth rockers Sisters of Mercy, pop-punkers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Scottish pop duo Strawberry Switchblade, and Dolly’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus. The most high-profile cover may prove to be Beyoncé’s “Jolene,” off 2024’s Cowboy Carter, the singer’s full-length foray into country music. Bey’s take is less a cover than a reimagining, as she delivers new lyrics that change the vibe from pleading to threatening. “Jolene, I’m a woman too / The games you play are nothing new / So you don’t want no heat with me, Jolene,” Beyoncé sings.

There have also been a number of answer songs written from Jolene’s POV. On 1994’s “Caroline,” UK singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl gives voice to a Jolene who feels bad about the relationship she’s ruined. American country singer Jennifer Nettles takes a different tact on 2013’s “That Girl,” which presents a Jolene who didn’t know she was stealing anyone’s man. Once she finds out, she goes to the other woman and informs her that her man was cheating. Country artist Cam does basically the same thing with 2017’s “Diane,” singing, “Diane, I promise I didn’t know he was your man.” 

The country trio Chapel Hart returns to the original narrator on 2021’s “You Can Have Him Jolene.” Having been scorned by this story’s unnamed male philanderer for the last time, the narrator tells Jolene, “He’s your problem—good luck keeping him home.”

“Jolene” entered the realm of parody during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern, went viral in 2020 with “Vaccine,” sung to the tune of Parton’s classic. The following year, when Dolly got her Moderna shot—a scientific breakthrough she helped to fund—she sang her own “Vaccine” parody: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine / I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate.”

Universal Relatability

The fact that “Jolene” has been covered and reinterpreted so many times speaks to its underlying relatability. Even if you’ve never had your marriage threatened by a foxy bank teller, you’ve probably experienced this song’s underlying emotion.

“The reason I think the song ‘Jolene’ has resonated with so many people for so long is because most of us have actually had a Jolene or a Joe in our lives at one time or another,” Parton says during the introduction to an episode of the 2019 Netflix series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. “But more importantly, we’ve all felt insecure about something. We’ve all felt like we might lose someone we love to someone else because we’re not good enough, and that’s what this song’s really about.”

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