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