Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is a perfectly digestible ode to jealousy. The somewhat sinister melody was inspired by a real-life encounter with a little red-headed child named Jolene, as she recounted to NPR Music a few years back. Lyrically, it’s a simple song, but sometimes the simplest lyrics hit hardest. Parton’s plea is now legendary: “Please don’t take him just because you can.” It registers with the basest of bitterness we’ve all felt. Ultimately, it’s the lowest rung on the ladder of romantic power play: to be humbled before “the next best thing.” Appealing to this universal fear with repetitive pleas and a brilliant hook made the track a hit-earning legend.
A karaoke favorite and one of Parton’s signature hits, “Jolene” is also her most covered song. Novices and stars alike have contributed takes on the track. Melodically, the song lends itself easily to interpretation. It’s fun to sing and hard to mess up if you have a good voice. Here are 10 of the best, or at least most interesting, covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
1. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Grace Potter’s slowed down, dynamic rendition is nothing if not chill-inducing. The rapt audience response, inducing a haunting sing-along, speaks to how intense this must have been to witness live. Bonus points for the Nocturnals’ beautiful jam and acoustic breakdown.
2. Miley Cyrus
The “Miley Cyrus is actually talented” meter went off when this video hit the blogosphere. She put a memorable stamp on the song with resonant vocal flourishes. When she sings those iconic, wailed “Jolene’s” at the end in a raspy octave lower than Dolly the effect is nothing if not witchy. Dolly Parton also happens to be Miley’s godmother, and the two performed the song together in 2010.
3. Patti Smith
This paired down version of “Jolene” was performed at Cellar Door in Washington D.C. in 1976. Left unfinished, Smith admitted, “we don’t know this song” with total nonchalance. Her cool kid delivery lends a certain eeriness to the song. The lack of sentimentality also makes this version rare among typically belted-out covers.
4. Kelly Clarkson
Clarkson takes the song as a request and admits to loving it, which is fitting given her emotive vocals. Pared down, Clarkson stretches her American Idol-winning vocal chords over piano accompaniment. Clarkson’s interpretation is equal parts soulful and minimal; Dolly would be proud.
5. Alison Krauss
A flash to Dolly in the audience is fitting for this rendition, performed by the legendary Alison Krauss during the Dolly Parton segment of the Kennedy Center Honors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The music is complimented by a twangy fiddle and Krauss’ angelic voice. Dolly is shown smiling appreciatively as Krauss, Suzanne Cox and Cheryl White deliver haunting harmonies together.
6. The White Stripes
The White Stripes performed “Jolene” often enough that Googling the song reveals there are people who actually thought it was their own. Jack White screams the lyrics, taking “Jolene” into full angst-ridden, rock territory. It’s an appropriate spin on a song that traffics in jealousy. Imagine Dolly Parton wearing Doc Martens during this one.
7. Olivia Newton John
Disco “Jolene” lives! Olivia Newton John hits the high notes like a Broadway star while quite literally skipping around the stage, hamming it up. Her hair is a spectacle unto itself in this unabashedly danceable version. John also wins the unofficial “Best Music Video Rendition of ‘Jolene’” for this gem.
8. Norah Jones
Jazzy vocal delivery and piano reveal the song as it really is: a total tearjerker. When she breathily croons, “you could have your choice of men, but I could never love again,” the pain that lurks beneath the spry playfulness of the original is felt. Jones’ hesitant, quiet vocals add new dimension to the track.
9. Todd Terje
Technically a remix, this version is too fun not to share. Created for a party at which Dolly was an honoree, a younger Dolly surely couldn’t have imagined that one day a hip Norwegian would give a spin on her Smoky Mountain-bred sounds. Throw this danceable version on after Olivia Newton John’s version, toss glitter into the air and parade around your living room in heels.
10. Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons
Laura Marling loves covering Dolly, and she does it well. Accompanied by Mumford & Sons, the rendition is all too fitting given Dolly’s bluegrass roots and the former’s affinity for said mountain music. Given the romantic history between Marling and Marcus Mumford, there’s an added element of juice to this combination of musicians performing this particular song.