Single Review: Olivia Newton-John & Dolly Parton, “Jolene”


Olivia Newton-John & Dolly Parton

Written by Dolly Parton

Olivia Newton-John’s final recording has been released.

If you’re looking for a clear-eyed, objective, and clinical assessment of this record, you should probably leave now.

Olivia Newton-John was the first artist that I ever loved, and this is the last thing that she ever recorded.  I cannot separate that finality from the record itself, nor do I want to.

“Jolene” is widely regarded as one of Dolly Parton’s best records.  Possibly the best Dolly Parton record.  But I’ve got something in common with the good people of Japan: I knew “Jolene” first as an Olivia Newton-John song.  Long before I had gone deep enough into her catalog to own Come On Over, I knew by heart her jawdropping performance of “Jolene” from the country section of her 1983 concert film, which played on a loop in our living room after my parents taped it off of HBO for me.

I even heard the ONJ studio version before finally hearing Dolly Parton’s haunting original recording, which felt oddly incomplete to me upon first listen because it didn’t have the extended vocal outro of the ONJ version, which showcases the full range of Newton-John’s vocal abilities.

As I fully immersed myself in country music in the nineties, Dolly Parton eventually emerged as one of my all time favorite artists.  Her catalog is rich and deep, and I will say without hesitation that she is the finest singer-songwriter in the history of the genre, and one of the greatest to ever put pen to paper in any genre.

So having these two women come together for a new recording of “Jolene” would’ve been a watershed moment for me even if it wasn’t Newton-John’s final recording, and they did such a great job here that it’s worthy of celebration beyond that distinction.

The arrangement is patterned after Olivia’s version of the song, but it incorporates the dark acoustic guitar chords that make the Dolly Parton original so eerily melancholy.  For most of its duration, this version of “Jolene” is a tasteful reprise of both ladies’ hit versions, with the added poignancy of their weathered vocals making it sound like an appeal to a younger woman not run off with their man.  “You could have your choice of men but I can never love again” just hits different when it’s being sung by women in their seventies.

But then we get an ending that I wasn’t prepared for.  As Parton adlibs, Newton-John reprises her ethereal outro. I’m not sure she was even able to stand on her own by this point in her illness, but she is able to reach the heavens with her voice one last time in a way that is…celestial.  There is simply no other word for it.

Those closing moments are the final gift from an artist who was the very embodiment of love and light, and it tempers the grief over her death with a deep feeling of gratitude.

Grade: A


  1. Olivia’s ending in this song is like listening to her at her best moments, a swan song that says goodbye to this life with the most beautiful sound. Olivia has been, and will be, an extraordinary singer, although sometimes she has not been recognized as she deserved. An extraordinary woman, on and off stage. We will love you always, Olivia.

  2. I could not have said it better. I had heard Olivia’s version from the time it was released.
    I knew who Dolly was. My mom and dad went to see her perform with Porter Wagner.
    It wasn’t until much later (Post 9-5) that I really figured out how special she was. As you said. This is a gift. And I believe there will be more gifts to come. It’s Olivia, thinking of her fans.

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