Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Dolly Parton, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”

“Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”

Dolly Parton

Written by Hugh Moffatt and Pebe Sebert


#1 (1 week)

September 27, 1980

After borrowing from the songwriting catalog of disco legend and fellow future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Donna Summer, Dolly Parton scored a second No. 1 hit from her Dolly, Dolly, Dolly album with a cover of a hit country single from just two years earlier.

Joe Simon went top fifteen in 1978 with “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.”  Dolly Parton’s husband, Carl Dean, liked to bounce around the radio dial, and he heard it on the local country station.  He loved the song enough to suggest that his wife record it, and given how rarely he embraced a country song, she took his advice.

“Old Flames” counters the prevailing narrative of where Parton was musically at the time.  It’s as simple a country record as anything she recorded before she went Hollywood.  The sparse arrangement puts all of the burden on Parton’s performance, and she gives a beautiful, restrained reading of the lyric.  The lonesome steel guitar provides a warm accompaniment to her flawless vocal.  Also of note are the gorgeous harmony vocals from Parton’s brother Randy and Herb Pedersen, who later joined the Desert Rose Band.

Parton’s version was later followed by more notable covers of the song, most recently from pop star Kesha, who is the daughter of co-writer Pebe Sebert.

Parton followed “Old Flames” with the title track from her next album and first feature film.  We’ll cover that in early 1981.

“Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. This is such a sweet and restrained song, and I love the sentiments in it so much. Definitely an A-worthy song and one I still have in rotation. Gorgeous. I did not know Kesha’s father was a songwriter but I like her music, too.

  2. I first heard this song as covered by Merle Haggard on his 1985 “Kern River” album.

    It is one of those rare and beautiful songs that I imagine exists on many people’s favorites list without ever being one that immediately comes to mind when asked.

    It is a quiet, subtle song that sustains.

    Parton was sneaky good in keeping the creative tension on the line when balancing the push and pull of country and pop influences.

    Accuse her of being “only” a pop star and she can instantly slap you upside the head with a classic country performance like this, even in 1980.

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