“Jolene” certainly wasn’t country’s first cheating song, nor was it the first country song sung by a female artist to the fabled “other woman”: Loretta Lynn built her career on them (“Fist City,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”), and subsequent generations of artists—from Barbara Mandrell to Sugarland and, more recently, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert—have continued to fuel the form. What made “Jolene” different then—and what remains haunting about it now—is Parton’s empathy: Instead of anger or bitterness, we hear about Jolene’s auburn hair and breath like spring; instead of seeing her as an adversary or abstraction, we see her as a human being with her own desires and complications. In “Jolene,” the other woman finally got a name. Most of the songs here remained anchored by the presence (or absence) of men: “Lonely Comin’ Down,” “When Someone Wants To Leave,” “Highlight of My Life,” and so on. But the purity of Parton’s delivery made even ordinary romance sound ethereal, almost timeless. Two years earlier, she’d written “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” a song that imagined her rural upbringing as a state of almost Edenic bliss. Between the joys and sorrows of Jolene’s love songs were persistent metaphors for nature: rivers of happiness, the union of sea and tide (“It Must Be You”), the freedom of butterflies perched on flower petals (“Early Morning Breeze”). The cumulative impression is that our earthly troubles—the other woman, the wayward men—will always exist. But shed yourself of your self-pity and woes, and you can see a state of nature open up where even heartache becomes beautiful and necessary. So if you haven’t heard “I Will Always Love You” in a while, you may be surprised to realize that it’s a breakup song. And if you want to know what kind of roll Dolly Parton was on in the mid-1970s, consider that she wrote it and “Jolene” on the same day.

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