Dolly Parton estimates that she has written close to 3,000 songs throughout her illustrious seven-decade career. While 450 of those songs have been recorded, Parton hasn’t always been the artist to sing them: Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr. and Kenny Rogers have famously recorded and released tracks written by the 10-time GRAMMY winner.
“I love to write songs for men,” Parton says in her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “And it’s a good thing I do because back then, there weren’t that many women in the country-music business to write songs for. Especially ones who weren’t writing their own songs, like Loretta Lynn was. I didn’t have a lot of space to write songs for women so I purposefully tried to write songs that men could record. Or songs that could go either way.”
That’s not to say women haven’t been a part of Parton’s canon. She penned songs that have been recorded by Emmylou Harris and Skeeter Davis, and even gave Whitney Houston one of the biggest songs of her career.
Parton’s songs have taken on new life thanks to artists across countless genres. In celebration of the Country Music Hall of Famer’s 76th birthday on Jan. 19, GRAMMY.com takes a look back at 10 songs you may not have known Dolly Parton wrote.
“Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” Bill Phillips
Before Parton became a household name for her own music, she was a songwriter for other artists. In January 1966, Bill Phillips released one of the songs she penned, “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” on which she provided backing vocals. The song peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart three months later, and the track’s success helped garner Parton a recording contract with Monument Records. (Phillips also recorded Parton’s “The Company You Keep,” which became another top 10 hit later that year.)
“Fuel to the Flame,” Skeeter Davis
Parton’s career may not have taken off without her uncle Bill Owens, who recognized his niece’s talent from a young age. In her early years in Nashville, Parton would frequently write with Owens and one of their earliest cuts together was when Skeeter Davis recorded and released “Fuel to the Flame” as a single in 1967. A beautiful ballad of a burgeoning love, “Fuel to the Flame” gave Davis her first major hit in two years, helping the star prolong her career while simultaneously helping launch Dolly’s.
“Kentucky Gambler,” Merle Haggard
A year before he wrote “Always Wanting You” for Dolly, Haggard recorded “Kentucky Gambler” in September 1974 at Nashville’s Columbia Studios while Parton provided harmony. A song about a miner who left behind his wife and kids, “Kentucky Gambler” is a classic Dolly Parton story song providing a lesson on greed.
Released as a single with the Strangers later that year, Haggard’s version of “Kentucky Gambler” reached No. 1 on Jan. 18, 1975. Parton recorded her own version of the song in 1973 and included it on her 1975 album The Bargain Store, but Haggard’s rendition is most recognized today.
“There’ll Always Be Music,” Tina Turner
Two years after Tina Turner and then-husband Ike Turner got the world dancing with their iconic hit “Proud Mary,” Tina kicked off her solo career by dabbling in country music. Her 10-track debut solo studio album, Tina Turns the Country On!, had an A-list roster of songwriters including Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Hank Snow and Parton, who penned “There’ll Always Be Music.”
The piano ballad showcased Turner’s soulful vocals and was an introduction to Turner apart from the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. While the album didn’t chart, it did earn Turner a GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.
“I’m In No Condition,” Hank Williams Jr.
Like many of Parton’s songs that were recorded by someone else, the singer still included her own version of “I’m In No Condition” on her 1967 album Hello, I’m Dolly. But after listening to Hank Williams Jr.’s rendition, it’s hard to believe it was written for anyone but him.
An honest portrayal of the struggle in the aftermath of a breakup, the song laments a love he didn’t want to end — underlined by the song’s titular chorus line, “I’m in no condition to try to love again.” Though it wasn’t one of Williams Jr.’s most successful singles, it certainly encapsulated the vulnerability the bellowing star brought to the genre.
“Circle of Love,” Jennifer Nettles
Jennifer Nettles played the role of Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Parton, in the 2016 television movie “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” based on a true story from Parton’s childhood. In classic Dolly fashion, she penned the film’s heartfelt title track by herself.
Moved by the waltzing song’s biblical message, Nettles also included her version on her solo To Celebrate Christmas holiday album released that year. Parton shared her own recording on her 2020 holiday album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, which is nominated for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album this year, and teamed up with Nettles to duet the song on “The Voice” that December.
“The Stranger,” Kenny Rogers
One month before Parton and her longtime collaborator Kenny Rogers released their revered Once Upon a Christmas holiday album, Rogers unveiled his What About Me? album in October 1984. Though that project didn’t include vocals from his singing partner, Rogers still had a touch of Dolly on the record: the powerful story song “The Stranger,” written by Parton.
It’s a tale of a boy wondering why his father deserted him before he was born only to meet him a decade after his mother’s death. “The Stranger” is a descriptive and heart-wrenching tune that pulls the listener right into the song. “It was me and mamma that you left behind,” Rogers croons at the song’s close. “You’re just a stranger.”
“Waltz Me to Heaven,” Waylon Jennings
While Parton reportedly wrote “Waltz Me to Heaven” for Waylon Jennings, the song first appeared on the 1984 film soundtrack for “Rhinestone,” starring Parton and Sylvester Stallone. Her youngest brother, Floyd Parton, sang on the original track.
Later that year, Jennings included “Waltz Me to Heaven” on Waylon’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The stirring waltz highlights Jennings’ memorable baritone alongside sweeping pedal steel and delicate fiddle accompaniment. Jennings’ “Waltz Me to Heaven” made the soundtrack song a hit, reaching No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
“To Daddy,” Emmylou Harris
A song written from the perspective of a teenager watching an unhappy relationship between her parents transpire, “To Daddy” sees the mother leaving her unaffectionate husband. The poignant tale clearly meant a lot to Harris and Parton, as Emmylou released it as a single from her 1977 album, Quarter Moon in Cent Town, and Dolly included it in her 1995 compilation, The Essential Dolly Parton, Vol. 1.
Harris’ version also resonated with fans: It scored her a No. 3 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 1978, and it was the only song featured on the 2003 tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton that wasn’t recorded specifically for the project.
“I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston
Long before Whitney Houston broke countless records with her rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” Parton wrote and released the song as a letter to Porter Wagoner. After telling Wagoner she wanted to leave The Porter Wagoner Show countless times and Wagoner ignoring those wishes, Parton decided to do what she does best: write a song.
“I wrote the song, took it back in the next day, and I said, ‘Porter, sit down. I’ve got something I have to sing to you,'” Parton recalled in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ Country Music book and documentary. “So, I sang it, and he was sitting at his desk, and he was crying. He said, ‘That’s the best thing you ever wrote. Okay, you can go, but only if I can produce that record.'”
While Parton’s recording landed at No. 1 on two different occasions (upon its release in 1974 and again in 1982, when a new version was recorded and released for the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), it was Houston’s spellbinding 1992 version from The Bodyguard that took the world by storm.
Spending 14 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” became the best-selling physical single by a woman, with 20 million copies sold to date. Houston’s version also took home Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 1994 GRAMMYs — creating an everlasting legacy for Whitney and Dolly alike.