A Slower Version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” Has Me Revving It In Neutral

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CzYHllLv_IE

I’ll tell you without a hint of shame that Dolly Parton is one of America’s great singers and I’ll brook no disagreement. Yes, yes, we can have our bombastic, over-the-top warblers, but there’s something about Parton’s style that has always had my attention. One of my favorite musical memories involves driving north through New York State and stumbling upon a radio station playing nothing but Parton tracks. And one after the next was incredible. Not just good; incredible.

Parton has always been associated with her trashier side, something she obviously emphasizes at every available opportunity. It’s not unfortunate that she does this. It’s been a marketing bonanza for her personally. It’s kept her in not-quite-but-close-to the national spotlight for literally decades.

So when the song above started floating around the interwebs earlier today, I was intrigued. I’ve since listened to it several times, and I’m unsure of what to do with what I’m hearing. Below is everything I’ve got:

1. I’ve professed my general disinterest in lyrics, both because I can’t remember them and I can only rarely understand them. Still, “Jolene” is one of those songs that stretches credulity. It is, after all, the mournful request of an abandoned woman. Here’s the start, “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take him just because you can.” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of that sort of thing, the singer’s request is heartbreaking, mostly because we recognize that Jolene’s almost certainly going to get what she wants here, leaving behind only the shattered wreckage of what was.

2. Except for this: this is Dolly Parton we’re talking about. She’s asking us to believe that Jolene’s game outmatches Parton’s own. I recognize that we’re meant to imagine Parton as the character of the heartbroken woman – so much of country music is predicated upon this absurdity (and some of it triumphs despite) – but Parton’s too big for that. She might not have been when the song first came out, but even then, I’m boggled at the idea people could hear and see her singing that song and believe that anybody, even a woman whose “beauty is beyond compare, with flaming locks of auburn hair, with ivory skin, and eyes of emerald green”, could take a man from Dolly Parton.

3. The reason the version I posted above has attracted so much attention is that it makes for a remarkably compelling version of the song. To achieve the auditory effect, the song is simply slowed down, a 45 played at 33 speed. Because it’s slower, the heartache seems to be emphasized. There’s no feeling that we’re rushing through Parton’s desperate please. But something is off…I’m just not sure what it is. I’m not sure if it’s that the now lower-voiced singer is less compelling as a narrator. I’m not sure if it’s my own aversion to the idea of this song not sounding like the version that I love. I tend to think that it might be something that I’m not able to put into words.

4. It just isn’t right, at least to my ears, this despite the fact that I find this version to be quite intriguing. My instinct is this: because the slowed down version sounds so different, the image we create in our head is very different. I don’t “see” Dolly Parton singing this, even though that’s her. I see somebody else. Somebody less…let’s just say competitive. Given the issue I laid out in my second point, that lack of competition ought to be a good thing. And yet, I struggle.

5. Unrelated Note: the sing-songy “Joleeeeeene” at the end of the song? The last lyric sung? I wish it wasn’t there. It doesn’t fit in any version.

Needless to say, I’m fascinated by what’s happening here, even if I’m not certain of what to make of what’s happening. I suppose though that makes the achievement all the more compelling. It is rare that songs hit me on multiple levels, especially one where I get myself stuck trying to figure out the lyrical implications. So three cheers for all of this. I think.

Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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16 Responses

  1. Krogerfoot says:

    Right on, I remember getting bent out of shape over some hack in the 80s writing that Dolly Parton “famous for being a celebrity” or some foolishness. I mean, the woman wrote “Rocky Top Tennessee” and “Coat of Many Colors” – what have you done, I shouted at my newspaper.

    Regarding 1 and 2, it’s never occurred to me to imagine that Dolly herself is losing her man to Jolene. Isn’t the genius of the song that it puts us in the narrator’s shoes and jolts us into identifying with her helplessness and humiliation? “I’ll appeal directly to my man’s new lover, beg her to take pity on me because she can do better, but I can’t.” It’s lunacy, and kind of scary since it’s a small next step to more drastic and irreversible action, and we recognize our capacity to feel that way.

    It also occurs to me that the song gets a lot of love from male fans.

    • Glyph says:

      Dolly herself is losing her man to Jolene

      According to wikipedia, Parton claims she was writing from experience:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jolene_%28song%29

      Even beautiful/famous people aren’t immune to insecurity (often quite the opposite).

      It also occurs to me that the song gets a lot of love from male fans.

      I think (girl group songs aside) American pop songs where a female narrator is doing the begging are fairly rare. The males beg all the time: for sex/love, for forgiveness, pleading “don’t do me like that”.

      Female song narrators, from the late 60’s forward, rarely beg; there’s a confidence there (“I will always love you”; “I’m going to make you mine”; “You better be good to me, or I’ll kick you to the curb, scrub”). So when they do beg, it stands out, because it’s a POV that isn’t expressed in popular song all that often anymore.

      It’s the reason Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” is so striking – we don’t often hear a female telling a male, “Baby, I was wrong, please come home.”

      Or “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs – it’s emotionally-naked pleading (almost “groveling”), and weirdly, in American pop music, that’s usually reserved for males (even though IRL, it’s an equal-opportunity thing).

      • Sam Wilkinson says:

        That’s the thing though: even if this IS based upon truth, I struggle to believe it, not because I’d dare call Dolly a liar, but because her persona seems so much larger than the petty concern of losing a man. It might have been easier to believe if you’d experienced the song at the outset, but for me, there’s a disconnect between Dolly now and what the lyrics are saying.

      • J@m3z Aitch says:

        the petty concern of losing a man

        Petty? Seriously? Has Sam never been deeply in love? 😉

        More seriously, being betrayed–in any way, including, but not limited to, love–is not generally considered a “petty” concern, but a pretty big deal. Ultimately, all we have with another person is trust, and when that is extended ony to be violated it is a serious emotional blow for most people.

        And I’d suggest we not mistake Parton’s public persona for the real, personal, Dolly Parton.

  2. Slugger says:

    To see all the facets of a jewel it has to be turned. A great song twisted a bit by a cover artist likewise reveals more beauty when it receives a fresh approach. I am thinking of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” or Hendrix doing “All along the Watchtower”. I am sure you all have further examples.
    Maybe that is the nature and definition of a great song. Change tempo, change key; still sounds great.

  3. Chris says:

    Being from Tennessee, I am required to say that Dolly Parton is perfect.

    • Sam Wilkinson says:

      It’s amazing that what we see and experience now is this larger than life person and personality, something so big that it seems to obscure the unfathomable talent.

      • Chris says:

        I met her once, when she was signing copies of her biography at a bookstore in Nashville in ’94 (I think). I mean, she said hi to me, so I met her, right? It was one of three times I’ve been genuinely star struck, the other two being Willie Mays and Biz Markie. She is larger than life even sitting behind a table stacked with books with her photo on the cover.

      • J@m3z Aitch says:

        Biz Markie?

        I begin to understand why you chose to study psychology.

    • Chris says:

      Also, in another thread yesterday I was saying that I tend to be attracted to women who are the opposite of me. I’m from a small Tennessee town, my girlfriend’s from Queens, I’m a country boy, she’s a city girl, I’m a geek, she’s a fashionista, I’m a neo-luddite, she buys every gadget as soon as it comes out, I like Neil Diamond, she doesn’t, but we both love Dolly Parton, not just her music but her everything. Dolly Parton is universal.

      • Sam Wilkinson says:

        Parton’s ability to absorb the criticism that comes her way and shrug it off is fantastic. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” is perhaps the ultimate response to any idiot trolling her, or whatever the critical equivalent was during the height of her fame.

        Parton, Franklin, Houston,…who is the 4th on a potential Mt. Rushmore?

      • Chris says:

        Hmm… I dunno, Tina Turner? Diana Ross? I’d be tempted to go with Ella, but that might be a stretch.

      • Sam Wilkinson says:

        I asked some friends, who rightfully responded, “It’s Mariah Carey you moron.” And I can’t disagree.

      • Chris says:

        Ah, that is the obvious answer in hindsight.

      • Jaybird says:

        Della Reece.