All Eyes Are Back on “Jolene” Thanks to Beyoncé’s New Cover

dolly parton playing guitar in front of a microphone and looking off into a crowd
Dolly Parton Wrote “Jolene” in a Flash of JealousyGetty Images
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Beyoncé’s highly anticipated album Act II: Cowboy Carter is finally here, and turns out the rumors of a collaboration with Dolly Parton were true. Queen Bey’s country-influenced project, released Friday, features a guest interlude from Parton and a completely revamped version of the 78-year-old’s iconic song “Jolene.”

“Just call me Dolly P,” Parton wrote Thursday in a post to social media site X, referencing her album cameo and clear endorsement of Beyoncé’s cover.

Originally released as a single in October 1973, “Jolene” remains one of Parton’s greatest hits and one of the most influential songs in modern music. Rolling Stone ranks the track—about a woman confronting a competing love interest for her beau—among the 100 best songs of all time. Artists such as Olivia Newton-John and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, another Cowboy Carter contributor, have covered the famous title.

With Beyoncé now the latest to do so, here’s everything you need to know about “Jolene,” the real woman who inspired Parton, and how the Grammy-nominated song marked a turning point in the country legend’s career five decades ago.

Listen to the original “Jolene” on Amazon Music, Apple Music, or Spotify

Parton wrote “Jolene” relatively early on in her career

the album cover for jolene with a picture of singer dolly parton in the middle
The cover for Dolly Parton’s 1974 album JoleneGetty Images

Parton was hardly the country icon she is today when, at age 27, she wrote and recorded the original “Jolene” in 1973. Having moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a music career in 1964, Parton didn’t release her first full-length album Hello, I’m Dolly until four years later. She had only one solo No. 1 country hit—“Joshua” from 1971—over the next few years.

Early in her career, Parton was best known for her collaborations with singer Porter Wagoner. She appeared many times on his syndicated television program The Porter Wagoner Show, which showcased her vocals to more than 45 million viewers. But Parton decided to take her career in a different direction and, according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, ended her working relationship with Wagoner in 1974.

The year prior, Parton had released “Jolene” as a single to great success, signaling her enduring solo career that lay ahead.

“Jolene” was based on a real person

Unlike other artists who have tried to keep their songwriting inspirations secret, Parton has discussed the meaning behind “Jolene” in vivid detail. The singer told NPR in 2008 that the lyrics and theme of the track came from an interaction her husband, Carl Thomas Dean, had with a flirty bank teller. The exchange happened shortly after the two married on Memorial Day in 1966. “She had everything I didn’t, like legs—you know, she was about 6 feet tall,” Parton said. “And had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don’t have.”

Parton describes the woman’s beauty in great detail through the song’s lyrics, referencing her distinctive red hair in the opening verse:

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green

As for the teller’s name, it’s extremely unlikely it was actually Jolene. Parton instead chose the short-but-sweet title based on a conversation she had while signing an autograph for a young concertgoer. “I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene,’” Parton explained. “And I said, ‘Jolene... That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’”

Apparently, the bank worker’s good looks didn’t have the spellbinding effect on Dean referenced later in the song. He and Parton have been married for almost 60 years. In a rare peek inside their private relationship, the singer revealed details of the more playful aspects of their dynamic in her 2017 book. “He knows I flirt [with other people]. He flirts too,” she explained. “Yes, it’s an open relationship, but not sexually, and I would kill him if I thought he was doing that. He would shoot me too. At the end of the day, we love each other madly.”

Many musicians have covered the song

The original recording of “Jolene” quickly went to No. 1 on the country chart and even appeared on the Billboard Hot 100, albeit at a relatively modest No. 60. Still, Parton’s career surged as a result. She received a Grammy nomination and was named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975. A series of smash hits followed, including “I Will Always Love You,” also featured on the Jolene album and inspired by her professional split from Wagoner; “Here You Come Again” in 1977; and “9 to 5” in 1980. Parton was officially a superstar.

The longevity for “Jolene” is due, in large part, to cover versions by many artists. Olivia Newton-John offered one of the earliest in 1976, and other singers who have tackled the hit include The White Stripes, Reba McEntire, Kelly Clarkson, and Lil Nas X.

Parton recently offered two of her own fresh takes. She teamed with Miley Cyrus to perform “Jolene” at the 2019 Grammy Awards then offered a rock-infused version featuring the band Måneskin for the extended cut of her 2023 album Rockstar.

The song even inspired an episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, a 2019 Netflix anthology series that saw Parton as an executive producer. The fictionalized dramedy featured eight standalone stories based on nine of Parton’s most popular songs. Actor and former Dancing with the Stars pro Julianne Hough portrayed a modernized Jolene in the debut episode.

Beyoncé puts her own spin on “Jolene”

beyonce wearing sunglasses and smiling and holding her left arm out as she performs
Beyoncé performs during her Renaissance World Tour in September 2023.Getty Images

Parton initially hinted on March 8 that Beyoncé would be including the track on her upcoming album. “I think she’s recorded ‘Jolene,’ and I think it’s probably going to be on her country album, which I’m really excited about that,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Sure enough, the song appeared on the Cowboy Carter track list released Wednesday. Furthermore, Parton’s interlude directly links the song to Beyoncé’s previous hit “Sorry” by comparing her Jolene to the “Becky with the good hair” mentioned in R&B icon’s 2016 track. Both Beyoncé and her husband, Jay-Z, have referenced “Becky,” the anonymous partner Jay-Z is believed to have cheated with, in songs.

Beyoncé’s “Jolene” cover features altered lyrics that deliver a much more antagonistic twist. Unlike in Parton’s version, Beyoncé delivers a direct warning to the Jolene after her beau. In one instance, she sings:

I can easily understand
Why you’re attracted to my man
But you don’t want this smoke, so shoot your shot for someone else

Parton’s original version goes:

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me

Beyoncé also incorporates new structural elements, such as the choral background vocals that repeat Jolene’s name as the song concludes.

While the latest “Jolene” is a departure from her original, Parton doesn’t seem to mind and is thrilled to welcome one of the world’s biggest stars to the genre she holds dear. “A lot of people don’t realize Beyoncé is a country girl. She’s from Texas,” Parton said. “I think we belong wherever we can do good, and her song [“Texas Hold ’Em”] is number one across every chart in the whole world, I think. So, I mean, who can argue with that?”

One thing’s for sure: Jolene will be a name listeners know for years to come.

Listen to Beyoncé’s “Jolene” cover and the rest of Cowboy Carter on Amazon Music, Apple Music, or Spotify

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