Buyer’s Guide: Dolly Parton

Building a music collection used to be a far more difficult thing, a dogged hunt through record stores and mail order catalogs, hoping to find what you were looking for.   The advent of the internet made things easier, but it wasn’t until music could be downloaded digitally that a deep music collection could be built with far less effort.

However, all of this available music can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on the catalog of an established artist.  Country Universe is here to help.   Our Buyer’s Guides will walk you through the music that is digitally available for a given artist, starting with the essential purchases for new listeners, and working through the entire digital catalog until even the completist fan will be sated.    You can also sample each album in its entirety, and purchase any song or album that you like through Amazon’s MP3 store.

Our first Buyer’s Guide is for our artist of the month, Dolly Parton.  Look for many more to come in the new year.

Starting Your Collection

Dolly Parton’s catalog is quite the labyrinth.   Thankfully, there are several compilations available that are an excellent value, offering twenty tracks each for less than ten dollars.   Casual fans can just pick up the first set, but serious country fans should skip the first and buy the other three.

Ultimate Dolly Parton

This collection is all that the casual fan will ever need, with twenty hits included for just under eight bucks.    All of her big crossover hits are here, like “Islands in the Stream”, “9 to 5” and “Here You Come Again.”   Also included are her country classics “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors” and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You.”    It’s a bit too broad for studious fans of country music, but if you just want the big hits, they’re all here.

The Essential Dolly Parton, Volume Two

RCA has yet to issue a definitive box set for Parton, but their three Essential releases in the nineties are collectively effective in covering her tenure with the label.    This is the strongest of the three sets, focusing on her sixties and seventies material.   In addition to the big hits, including the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”,  you also get lesser-known greats like “Touch Your Woman”, “Mule Skinner Blues” and “The Seeker.”   Her transformation from mountain singer to pop sensation is captured here, as the set includes the first wave of her pop hits, too.

The Essential Dolly Parton One: I Will Always Love You

Even though it was released first, this set focuses on the latter years of Parton’s tenure, with nearly all of the cuts being released in the eighties.  The rest of the big pop hits are here, like “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream”, along with some forgotten gems, most notably “Single Women”, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues.”  Also of note is her recording of “To Daddy”, which she chose not to release when Emmylou Harris expressed interest in recording it instead.

The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

Although they both are Hall of Famers, you can’t effectively tell the story of either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton without discussing their work together.   They are the most successful collaborators in country music history, and nearly all of their hits are collected here.   Classics like “Making Plans” and “Just Someone I Used To Know” are essential, as are “Burning the Midnight Oil” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

Building Your Collection


For all three women involved – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris – this was a career landmark, which brought them wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success.    The harmonies are exquisite throughout, but the best moments are “The Pain of Loving You”, “Wildflowers” and “Telling Me Lies.”

Honky Tonk Angels

Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette earned their first gold albums in decades when they teamed up with Parton for this excellent traditional country set.   They cover the gamut of classic songs, even sharing the mic with Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline.   But the best section of the album is when they each perform a lesser-known original – “Let Her Fly” (Parton), “That’s the Way it Should Have Been” (Wynette), and “Wouldn’t it Be Great” (Lynn).

The Acoustic Collection: 1999-2002
(The Grass is Blue/Little Sparrow/Halos and Horns)

Parton received renewed acclaim when she released this trio of roots albums  at the turn of the century.  Each one of them is essential listening, as these are arguably the finest three studio albums of her storied career.   In this collection, you get them all for about nine dollars each.   If you’re going to just pick one, do it by your own tastes.   The Grass is Blue is the most bluegrass, Little Sparrow is mountain soul, and Halos and Horns is an eclectic mix of both styles.

I Will Always Love You and Other Greatest Hits

This ten-track retrospective of her Sony years begs to be cherry-picked, as it is no cheaper to buy it as a whole than it is to purchase the individual tracks.     But all of her big hits for that label are here, including three #1 singles and appearances by Ricky Van Shelton, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, Tanya Tucker, Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Alison Krauss.

Completing Your Collection

Parton’s studio albums are collectively stronger than what’s currently available demonstrates, though much of her best work remains in print and some of her older sets have been augmented with additional tracks.    Those four sets lead off this list, followed by seventeen other albums in descending order of quality.    The last handful are for die-hards only, but may provide an entertaining listen for all those who are willing to  indulge.  The best tracks are noted for those who want to download the highlights.

My Tennessee Mountain Home

A tribute to her East Tennessee roots, this is the best of her early albums.   In addition to the title track, highlights include “The Letter”, a recitation of a letter she wrote home after arriving in Nashville; “Daddy’s Working Boots”, and “Down on Music Row.”

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs

Parton used the title track of her first film as the starting point for a concept album about the trials and tribulations of the American worker.   Everyone from factory workers (“Detroit City”) to prostitutes (“House of the Rising Sun”) are sung about.    Most poignant and powerful is “Deportee (Plane Wreck at San Gatos)”, a stunningly sad lament from the perspective of immigrant workers.

Just Because I’m a Woman

Her first RCA album shows a talent in full bloom, with the title track and “False Eyelashes” among the biggest highlights.   This remastered edition is especially valuable for its inclusion of an outtake from Parton’s first live album, A Real Live Dolly, where she debuts a song she has just written called “Coat of Many Colors.”


In addition to the legendary title track and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”, this fine album includes the gems “When Someone Wants to Leave” and “Living on Memories of You.”

Coat of Many Colors

The title track is arguably her finest composition of all-time, but there are plenty of other great moments on this 1971 album, including a pre-hit version of “Traveling Man”, the spiritual “Here I Am”, and the sordid “If I Lose My Mind.”

Backwoods Barbie

Parton’s most recent album showcases her versatility as a writer and performer.   The title track will be included in the score she’s composed for the Broadway musical 9 to 5.   Also worthy of attention are “Cologne”, “Only Dreamin'” and “Better Get to Livin’.”

Those Were the Days

Her previous covers albums Treasures and The Great Pretender are no longer in print, but this is a better collection that both of them anyway.   She applies the roots sound she’s been recently known for to classic pop songs.   Highlights include “Both Sides Now”, “The Twelfth of Never” and the title track.

Something Special

Only the duet with Vince Gill on “I Will Always Love You” garnered attention from this set, but her writing renaissance began with this 1995 set.  The whole album deserves to be rediscovered, but start with “Crippled Bird” and “Change”, then move on to “Teach Me to Trust” and “No Good Way of Saying Goodbye.”

Great Balls of Fire

There were three hits on this album, most notably the #1 single “You’re the Only One”, but the best moments were never sent to radio.   The bluegrass-flavored cover of The Beatles classic “Help!” is surprisingly effective, and “Down” explores the same theme well.   Best of all is the album opener, “Star of the Show”, where she shows a philandering lover the door.

Trio II

This Grammy-winning sequel reunites Parton with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.  While it’s not as cohesive as the first set, there are some great moments, particularly when Emmylou sings lead on “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”

Live and Well

A satisfying set from her Halos & Horns tour, it features all of her big hits, alongside many of the best songs from her roots albums.   It’s not as good as Heartsongs: Live From Home, but it’s worth hearing, especially the “A Cappella Medley” that ends with a double-time rendition of “Two Doors Down.”

All I Can Do

Parton’s transitional album.   It features the traditional country she’d been known for up until this 1976 release, with “Shattered Image” and the title track both worthy of attention.   But the theatrical cover of Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is a prelude to the pop sound she was preparing to embrace.

Eagle When She Flies

Parton’s second wave of big commercial success crested with this chart-topping, platinum-selling album.    The best moments are the title track, which was originally written for but ultimately rejected from the film Steel Magnolias, and her hit duet with Ricky Van Shelton, “Rockin’ Years.”  There’s also an entertaining duet with Lorrie Morgan, “Best Woman Wins.”

New Harvest…First Gathering

It opens with “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, one of Parton’s best compositions.  The rest of the album doesn’t approach that standard, but “Applejack” and “Where Beauty Lives in Memory” are worth a few listens.

For God and Country

This patriotic set reaches great heights with “Welcome Home”, provides surprising pleasure with a cover of “God Bless the U.S.A.”, and eventually devolves into pointless renditions of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”

White Limozeen

Her second Sony album was her first gold studio set in nine years, anchored by the #1 hits “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That” and “Yellow Roses.”   Highlights include a cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Time For Me to Fly” and the gospel closer “He’s Alive.”

Dolly Dolly Dolly

A mostly dull affair, the best moments were also the hit singles.  “Starting Over Again” and “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” both topped the chart.


Far less entertaining than its predecessor, the unfortunately unavailable Here You Come Again.    The most interesting moment is the disco hit “Baby I’m Burning.”   It also produced two # hits, “I Really Got the Feeling” and the title track.

Real Love

Her RCA swan song is drenched in synthesizers, but it’s the material that makes this set falter, not the arrangements.    Three big hits are on this set, but the only one worth mentioning is “Think About Love.”

Burlap & Satin

A dull and lifeless set, noteworthy only for the excellent and essential “Appalachian Memories.”


Arguably the worst album of her career.   It’s a sin that this is available and so many other albums are not.   Opener “The River Unbroken” is decent, but it falls apart from there, with “Red Hot Screaming Love” and “Dump the Dude” the lowest moments.


  1. A very useful feature Kevin, great stuff, thanks for doing this!

    I think I will find it helpful even though I’m still in the age of the CD, and don’t have a clue how to download, etc.

    I have been looking for just such a road map for Dolly’s music, and look forward to similar articles for other artists as well..

    But please, don’t forget that we CD buyers still exist out here also!

  2. Rainbow,

    Since future readers of this thread will see both the post and the comments, I’d love for you to expand on your thoughts for their benefit.

    What albums should be ranked below Rainbow? What do you find interesting about Burlap & Satin and Dolly Dolly Dolly?

  3. Kevin – Great list…you have put a lot of time and effort into listing the best of Dolly’s LPs…just wish RCA would give her the same consideration! RCA did issue a 2 cd box-set, but the best thing about it was the booklet they included with it. It was called “The RCA Years 1967-1986 and shows up on eBay often.
    I have mixed feelings about “Rainbow” — But I love “The River Unbroken”.
    I agree that “the Ultimate Dolly” cd is a great value with some super songs – And its available at the big box stores for under ten bucks – plus great new pics of Dolly to boot.

    Unfortunately, RCA puts the same old songs on every compilation – I am sure to appeal to the most people no doubt, but it would be great to hear some of the less popular (as far as Billboard is concerned) singles and some album cuts. Dolly has some great cuts that were never released to radio, but these rarely make it on to the Best Of’s or Greatest Hits.

    I Highly reccomend “Tennessee Mountain Home”, “Coat of many Colors” and “Jolene” The recent re-issues are wonderful, with some rare, never-before-heard bonus tracks including a stunning acoustic version of “My Blue Tears” that makes me wish Dolly would just do an album with her and her guitar…nothing else.

    Again Kevin, very well done on this list – always love to hear what others think about my favorite girl from east Tennessee…

    There is a great section on that shows ALL of Dolly’s studio album covers..go to the “Gallery” link on the menu bar once in Dollymania, then scroll all the way thru the many Dolly picture galleries to the bottom where the webmaster lists the album covers…It is hilarious to see how Dolly went from motronly looking on her first LPs to the smokin’ hot Dolly on the “Rainbow” cover (maybe thats why I like that record so much…)

  4. First of all, I think “Dolly Dolly Dolly” showed what Dolly could do with lyrics that weren’t her own. She has alot of fun with songs like “Sweet Agony”, and she interprets “Even A Fool Would Let Go” masterfully.
    The production on “Burlap & Satin” is rather unspectacular, but the lyrics carry that album all the way. “A Gamble Either Way” is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard, and “A Cowboy’s Ways” is rather sad too. “Calm On The Water” and it’s gospel-flavored arrangement is pure ear candy, and “Potential New Boyfriend” is playful and sexy at the same time.
    “Rainbow” is an album of almost pure fun, and the mood of the album makes it a perfect feel-good album. “Red Hot Screaming Love” is sexy, fun, and romantic at the same time. The more serious compositons on the album are rather brilliant as well, “Make Love Work” and “More Than I Can Say” being the highlights. “Rainbow” is the album I took my screen-name from.
    I consider Doilly’s weakest album to be “Slow-Dancing With The Moon”. That one was rather trite lyric-wise, and Dolly sounds bored throughout the album. But, even that album has something to like about it, which is a testament to Dolly’s catalog.

  5. Rainbow; I agree that “Slow Dancing with the Moon” is a rather weak effort for the most part – “More Where That Came From” is a standout on that one…”Slow Dancing” is also the album that Dolly began to whisper through entire songs…something she continued on “Something Special”, and many others. I love Dolly’s voice, and she sounds great singing softly, but the whisper effect does nothing for me…someone must have told her it sounded “cute”. ’cause she’s milking it!
    I agree that “Burlap and Satin” might sound a bit dated thanks to the production, but it does have some gems as far as the songs go. “A Gamble Either Way” is a great one written for, but not used in “Best Little Whorehouse” The line “A fifteen-year old girl has no trouble hitching rides, but sometimes when you’re ridin’ free, you pay the highest price… Damn, Dolly can really nail it when she wants to!

  6. Great work Kevin!

    I will have to make a huge Dolly Parton “Best Hits Throughout the Year” playlist one of these days.

    I agree with “Rainbow” being, at least fairly low. “Dump the Dude”?…yeah…that’s not a good one.

    I REALLY love “Backwoods Barbie”, the whole CD, though.

  7. Burlap & Satin was the first studio album of Dolly’s that I ever bought. I still have the cassette that I got way back in 1983. There are a couple of weak songs on it, but it’s always been one of my favorite Dolly albums. As I recall, it garnered mostly favorable reviews at the time and was nominated for a Grammy. It contains some real gems; I definitely would not call it “dull and lifeless”.

    “Rainbow” is not one of my favorites, but it’s all right if you accept it for what it is — a pop album that made no pretense of being country. “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly” and “Heartbreaker” are her two worst albums.

    As an aside note, on January 20th Sony is releasing yet another compilation of Dolly’s RCA years, offering nothing that hasn’t appeared on countless other compilations. I wish they’d stop re-hashing the same old stuff over and over again and instead concentrate on re-releasing some of her 70s albums in their entirety.

  8. I almost fell out of my chair in laughter when I read Sheldon’s comments about the whispering. I agree. Although on the new album, Backwoods Barbie, I thought the sobbing on the Do You Think I’m Made of Stone song was effective and really underscored the perspective of the song, conveying the sorrow that is felt by the story teller.

    This list is really good. I used to own so many Dolly records and now, I own just a couple of CDs. The difficulty in choosing a favorite Dolly album is that any album will always have one song that is a real gem. On some albums, it is more than one or two or three.

    I learned so much about the music these past couple of days, reading not only the original posts but also the comments that many of you have written. What I would really like is a box set that is set up much like the Vince Gill These Days collection. Wouldn’t it be great to compile some of these gems, buried on these vintage albums and cataloging them by musical style? I would buy it in an instant!

    Happy New you all. May 2009 be awfully kind to you and I am hoping that this year will be the year that Dolly releases that double album, that takes her across all the roads she has travelled musically, a full circle back to her authenticity!

  9. That’s a great list. But like some others I do think that Burlap and Satin is a wonderful album. There are some songs I skip but “Gamble Either Way” is amazing as well as “Calm on the Water”. I also like “Jealous Heart.” Slow Dancing with the Moon is an awesome album in my opinion as well. The title track is one of my favorite songs!

    I also wish that they would start releasing her older studio albums instead of all the compilations of songs that I already have on mulitple discs!! I would love to have all of her older albums on CD, so I agree with everyone there!

  10. I agree that “Rainbow” is one of Dolly’s worst albums. Over-produced and a rather trivial album that Dolly seemed to relese just to fill some time and possibly because she was contractually obligued to. “Dump The Dude” is painful to listen too, but if you skip enough tracks you will come to the only highlight on the album, the beautiful “More Than I Can Say” (which later morphed into the equally beautiful “Unlikely Angel” from the TV movie of the same name, which has sadly never been released on an album)

    I also agree it is very annoying that the same songs are always put together on the countless compilations. Delve deper into Dolly’s catalogue and thee are some amazing songs that were never released as singles and so are considered “unpopular”. I’d like to see these released as well as songs from her TV movies, many of which are fantastic but hae never appeared on an album (like the aforementioned “Unlikely Angel” and “Wild Texas Wind”)

    Amongst my favourite albums are “Eagle When She Flies” (which is full of traditional, well written country songs) “Halos & Horns” (a strong album and with the quite simply amazing “These Old Bones” and the emotional “What A Heartache”) “Something Special” (because “Crippled Bird”, “Change”, “Teach Me To Trust” and “No Good Way Of Saying Goodbye” are four of Dolly’s best songs in my opinion) and “Joshua” (because the title track and “Chicken Every Sunday” are two of my all time faves!)

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