With more than a hundred chart hits to her name, including 25 #1 singles and 57 top tens, Dolly Parton is the most successful singles artist in country music history. But even before she was a hit on the radio as a singer, her songs had already been in heavy rotation. They were just sung by different artists.
Throughout the past five decades, there have been countless versions of her songs recorded, so narrowing them down to six is no easy feat. It might be best to look at this list as an introduction, rather than a conclusion. Either way, these six cuts are essential listening.
“The Last One to Touch Me”, Porter Wagoner
from the 1971 album Simple as I Am
Parton and Wagoner recorded quite a few of her songs together on their various duet albums, but Wagoner had a hit on his own with a Parton composition as well. This touching ballad is a forward-looking declaration of love, with one lover wishing the other is the last one to touch them – at the end of every day, right up until the last day of their life.
“Down From Dover”, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
from the 1972 album Did You Ever?
This is Parton’s heartbreaking tale of a shunned daughter sent away from home for being pregnant out of wedlock. It’s transformed into a downright creepy duet here, with Hazlewood cruelly mocking Sinatra as he repeats the promises he has no intentions of keeping.
“Kentucky Gambler”, Merle Haggard
from the 1975 album Keep Movin’ On
Haggard and Parton’s mid-seventies touring produced two #1 hits. One is “Kentucky Gambler”, which Parton penned. It remains the only #1 country hit that she’s written for another artist. It’s a great song, and is included on the same album as “Always Wanting You”, a #1 hit that Haggard wrote about Parton and his unrequited love for her.
“To Daddy”, Emmylou Harris
from the 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town
On her fourth studio album, Harris was determined to prove that she could record a collection of all-new songs by contemporary songwriters. Parton helped her along by giving her a masterpiece.
“I Will Always Love You”, Whitney Houston
from the 1992 album The Bodyguard
There have been so many great recordings of this song, including three hit versions by Parton herself, and solid covers by Linda Ronstadt and Melissa Etheridge. But none of them hold a candle to the tour de force that is the Whitney Houston recording. The a cappella opening verse, the slowly building emotional intensity, the explosive final stretch. If there was a better vocal performance anywhere on the radio in the nineties, I didn’t hear it.
“The Grass is Blue”, Norah Jones
from the 2003 album Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton
Putting Parton’s bluegrass arrangement to the side, Norah Jones went with her signature piano-based style instead. The result was a great song made even better, so much so that when Parton performs the song today, she uses Jones’ arrangement instead of her own.
Wow. I didn’t know any of that stuff about Dolly and Merle Haggard. And I think this is a great feature too …
Merle said somewhere that he got Dolly on his bus one night when they were doing a show somewhere and told her his feelings he had for her…She let him down easy…
With all due respect, I must honorably but strongly dissent over Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You.” Sixteen years later, I still can’t stand to hear that bombastic, way-over-the-top way she mangled that song.
As much as I hate to admit it, I prefer Whitney’s version over any of Dolly’s, especially after she belts it after that single drum beat.
Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is a great showcase for her lung power and is a dramatic vocal, but I never really loved it as an interpretation of the song. To me she sounds like someone who loves
the sound of her own voice. So much so, in
fact, that I would love to hear Whitney tear
into “Still Within the Sound of My Voice.”
But she sucks the life out of “I Will Always Love You.”
One song you mentioned is “Down from Dover.” I’m not familiar with the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood version, but Skeeter Davis recorded an exquisite version of it on her 1970 album “It’s Hard to Be a Woman.” Unfortunately, all of Skeeter’s albums are pretty much obscure and forgotten.
And another I think is a Dolly classic is Skeeter Davis’ “Fuel to the Flame”- a late 1966, early 1967 hit. Along with “Put It Off Until Tomorrow.” this was one of the earliest Dolly-penned songs to be a hit.
Actually, I was always fond of Bill Phillip’s classic 1966 recording of “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” (Dolly also sang harmony on it) and his follow up, also written by Dolly called “The Company You Keep”. Both songs reached the top ten. I think these were the two earliest Parton songs to chart