Dolly Parton Songs You Didn’t Know Dolly Parton Didn’t Write

Dolly Parton has proven herself time and again as one of the finest songwriters in country music history. But she has also delivered time and again as an excellent interpreter of the songs of others. And on top of that, she has occasionally come up with winning interpretations of straight-up cover songs. In those cases, she has a knack for making the songs her own in such striking fashion that you might not believe she didn’t write them herself. Here are five occasions when Parton beautifully found the essence of songs first recorded by others.

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1. Boulder to Birmingham” (original by Emmylou Harris)

It’s interesting how things work out sometimes. For most of her early solo career, Parton rarely included any songs on her albums she didn’t write. Harris, meanwhile, usually lent her inimitable vocals to songs written by others. But when Parton did decide to step out for a cover on her 1976 release All I Can Do, she included a cover of one that Harris did write (with Bill Danoff). “From Boulder to Birmingham” featured Harris’ reflections on her short-lived but memorable personal and professional relationship with country-rock legend Gram Parsons. Parton and Harris would of course go on to collaborate many more times, most notably on their so-called “Trio” records with Linda Ronstadt.

2. “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (original by Joe Sun)

By the dawn of the ‘80s, Parton was effortlessly crossing over to the pop charts like few of her country peers had ever been able to do. It helped as well that her burgeoning career in Hollywood was introducing her to a much wider fan base. But she never abandoned the country audience, as evidenced by the fact that this cover song went to No. 1 in 1980.

[RELATED: Dolly Parton’s Greatest Quotes and “Dollyisms”]

Fun bit of trivia here: The song was written by Pete Sebert, whose daughter is the pop star Kesha. Kesha recorded her own version of “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” on an EP, and then Parton duetted with Kesha on the track in 2017. It goes to show how a well-constructed pun in a title can give a song quite the shelf life.

3. “But You Know I Love You” (original by The First Edition)

In 1981, there were probably no two bigger country music stars on the planet than Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. That’s what makes this cover so interesting. The initial version of the song was performed by Rogers all the way back in 1969, when he was a member of The First Edition. (Mike Settle, also a member of The First Edition, wrote the song.) It turned into one of the group’s biggest hits, making it all the way into the pop Top 20. Parton put her own lovely spin on the tune on the 1981 album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs and watched it soar to the top of the country charts. Many others had covered the song in between the original and Parton’s take, but none with anywhere near as much success.

4. “Just When I Needed You Most” (original by Randy VanWarmer)

OK, if you knew this song was found on Parton’s 1996 album Treasures, it might be a giveaway that it’s a cover, since that record consists of nothing but. It’s dead-center within Parton’s comfort zone, a heartbreak song that she delivers with just the right hints of vulnerability and delicacy.

Randy VanWarmer’s original was a bit of an unlikely Top 5 hit at the end of the ‘70s, in that the singer/songwriter hadn’t enjoyed success anywhere near that previously in his career (nor would he after). Parton employed John Sebastian, who played on the original as well, to add his unique autoharp instrumental break, while Alison Krauss delivers subtle beauty with her tender backing vocals for icing on the cake.

5. “Time for Me to Fly” (original by REO Speedwagon)

Parton’s 1989 album White Limozeen was seen as a return to form after some outings in the middle of the decade weren’t as well-received. She kicked off the record with a sassy bluegrass song featuring some expert picking by the musicians helping her out. But you might not have known that the original version was a proto-power ballad from REO Speedwagon, and was a minor hit for the band in the years before the massive success of their High Infidelity in 1980. Parton must have remembered the REO connection, because she tapped Kevin Cronin, lead singer of the band and the writer of “Time for Me to Fly,” to perform a duet on the Speedwagon chart-topper “Keep on Loving You” for her 2023 rock album.

Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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