Hello, I’m Dolly (Monument, 1967)
It wasn’t exactly her introduction to the world—she’d appeared as a child on Cas Walker’s television and radio shows in Knoxville, recorded a few pop singles, and had written hits for Skeeter Davis and Bill Phillips—but Parton’s debut solo album was her first major solo exposure. Hello, I’m Dolly went to number 11 on the country charts, largely on the strength of the singles “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy,” the latter of which Parton wrote. Within a few months of the album’s release, Parton had replaced Norma Jean as Porter Wagoner’s partner on his TV show.
Coat of Many Colors (RCA, 1971)
Four years before Willie Nelson put out Red Headed Stranger, regarded as the first country concept album, Parton released her eighth solo studio album, a tight 10-song collection that does just about everything Nelson and Waylon Jennings were trying to do at the same time with none of the Outlaw Country fanfare. Parton wrote seven of the songs, with the other three coming from Porter Wagoner, and the album feels cohesive and fully formed. Parton has said the title track is her favorite of all the songs she’s written.
Jolene (RCA, 1974)
Parton churned out 11 albums between 1971 and 1975, and it’s hard for a songwriter, even one as prolific as she is, to keep up. Jolene, her 12th record in the six years since she signed with RCA, has a lot of filler. But it’s also got “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” and two mega-standards always trump everything else.
Best of Dolly Parton (RCA, 1975)
By the time her label released this second greatest-hits compilation in 1975, Parton was well on her way to superstardom. This set shows why. It includes her biggest hits up to that point, many of which are still her best-known songs, and reflects a period of unparalleled creativity: “Jolene,” “Travelin’ Man,” “The Bargain Store,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”
New Harvest... First Gathering (RCA, 1977)
Parton produced this pop-oriented album herself and recorded it in Los Angeles, which explains the Farrah Fawcett-by-way-of-Pure Prairie League cover design. Her idiosyncratic taste in cover songs shows up here for the first time, with “My Love,” an altered version of the Temptations’ “My Girl,” and a take on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” New Harvest also includes the beloved “Applejack.”
Here You Come Again (RCA, 1977)
Dolly goes disco. Not exactly—it just looks like that on the cover—but this is where Dolly’s real pop crossover started. That title track is country music in name only, despite its success on the country chart. This was, probably not coincidentally, Parton’s first platinum album.
9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (RCA, 1980)
Her biggest hit, and perhaps her defining moment. The title track went to number one on the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts.
White Limozeen (Columbia, 1989)
It had been all downhill after 9 to 5. With a new label, Parton finally bounced back with this Ricky Skaggs-produced effort, featuring two of her last number-one hits, “Yellow Roses” and “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.”
“Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That”
One of the last number-one country singles Parton recorded, 1989’s “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” might be the purest ear-catching tune of her career. And not for nothing—it works its singable chorus relentlessly and effectively, inserting it a nearly unbelievable five times around only two verses. But more than clocking in at prime ditty-length (just over two-and-a-half minutes), its cutesy lines (“He’s got… big ideas and a little behind”), and rhyming “heart attack” with “gunny sack,” it’s Parton’s performance that makes the hit irresistible. She plays it big, lays the accent on thick, and charmingly talk-sings in all the right places, of which there are many. And the key change for the sixth and final repetition of the chorus isn’t what makes you feel like you’ve just found 20 bucks in your back pocket—it’s Parton’s tirelessly exuberant re-launch, sounding like she’s belting it from atop the bar with no concern for the fact that she’s supposed to be wallowing in a pit of jealous despair. Instead, she theatrically gasps the final “lookin’ like that,” suggesting her gorgeous ex-baby and his skin-tight Wranglers are metaphorically dancing on something a little farther south than her heart. Straight Talk? They should have made a major motion picture out of this one. (Amanda Mohney)
The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill, 1999)
Parton never found significant footing on the country charts in the ’90s, but she neatly reinvented herself with this bluegrass album, recorded with superstars Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. Surprisingly, most of the songs are covers—Flatt and Scruggs’ “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone,” and an unexpected version of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer.”
Backwoods Barbie (Dolly Records, 2008)
A brassy return to pop country, half of it overproduced ballads, the other half self-help motivational speeches, with a couple of unexpected (and not particularly successful) covers thrown in: Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drive Me Crazy” and Smoky Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”