Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Dolly Parton, “But You Know I Love You”

“But You Know I Love You”

Dolly Parton

Written by Mike Settle

Radio & Records

#1 (2 weeks)

June 5 – June 12, 1981

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

June 20, 1981

Dolly Parton expanded on the themes of “9 to 5” with an ambitious concept album, 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, which featured various songs about working people.  In addition to writing material herself, she curated a strong collection of covers, and the final two singles from the album would be culled from that batch.

First up was “But You Know I Love You,” which had been a pop hit for Kenny Rogers & The First Edition in the sixties and a country hit for Bill Anderson immediately after.  The song’s details about the cost of traveling for work resonated with many artists, who could easily relate to being away from their partners while on the road.

Parton’s 1981 cover is the definitive version of the song.  Part of that is due to the fantastic arrangement, which highlights acoustic instrumentation that supports Parton without getting in her way.  But the biggest reason the record works so well is Parton’s phenomenal vocal performance.

Parton’s most significant talent is her songwriting, and it’s easy for her talents as a singer to be overlooked.  One need look no further than Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” to hear how a Parton song can be elevated by an exceptional singer.  “But You Know I Love You” is evidence of Parton’s own gifts as an interpreter, and I will say without hesitation that the bridge of this song is her finest moment on record as a vocalist.

It’s simply extraordinary the way that she goes a little bit higher in her range with each line, complementing the intensifying emotion as she indulges in a moment of fantasy, as if she’s on the verge of convincing herself that this idle dream could come true:

If only I could find my way back to the time

When the problems of this life had not yet crossed my mind

And the answers could be found in children’s nursery rhymes

I’d come running back to you

The way she dips right back down to reality following the bridge – “But you know we can’t live on dreams alone” – only heightens the impact of the bridge through such a stark contrast.  It’s the best thing she’s ever done that she didn’t write herself.

Parton followed this with her discofied version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” which restored the lyrics that made the protagonist a prostitute. It went top fifteen.  It deserved better.

Two more top ten hits followed from her next album, Heartbreak Express: “Single Women” and the title track.  “Single Women” is another underrated gem that foreshadowed later hit records by K.T. Oslin and Pam Tillis.   Parton will return to the top in 1982 with her only double-sided No. 1 hit.

“But You Know I Love You” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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5 Comments

  1. I would put this in my top 5 favorite Dolly Parton songs – much higher than 9 to 5.

    I love songs like this. ‘I love you’ with a touch of sadness. I like how you touch on that bridge and then right back into the reality of the relationship. The arrangement is just beautiful.

    And I whole heartedly agree that this is the best thing she has recorded that she didn’t right. Thank you for an excellent review of one of my favorite songs of the 80s.

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  2. Great song for sure… but I totally love Heartbreak Express… love everything about it, including the wonderful sax playing. Also totally love Single Women.

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  3. I had no idea this song was a cover! I had only heard Dolly’s interpretation and I love it, I would put it above “9 to 5” myself, it is just a really beautiful, touching and relatable song. I agree her version of “House Of The Rising Sun” is amazing and deserved way better than top fifteen. I also like “Single Women”, and saw the TV movie a really long time ago, I mostly remember it having Shelley Hack of Charlie’s Angels as one of the “Single Women” and being a reasonably watchable movie.

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  4. Why was I so busy ignoring and dismissing Dolly Parton during the ’80s?

    I feel like I need to write her a letter and apologize.

    This is a beautiful performance.

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  1. ≫ Dolly Parton, “Pero sabes que te amo” – Country Universe

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