The Meaning Behind “Eagle When She Flies” by Dolly Parton

When people list the greatest Dolly Parton country songs, they often default immediately to her incredible run of successes in the 1970s. But don’t sleep on her return to the genre in the late ‘80s, which came after she had drifted in more of a pop direction in the earlier part of the decade. In particular, take another listen to the title track to her 1991 album Eagle When She Flies.

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The song soars to heights reached by the very best of Parton’s songs of any era, as she manages to tell a story that seems like it came straight from her own experience, while also speaking on behalf of women everywhere. Let’s take a deeper dive into what makes “Eagle When She Flies” such a special song.

The Eagle Has Landed

In the single calendar year of 1987, Dolly Parton experienced the highs and lows of the music world. On the one hand, her Trio collaboration with her good buddies Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt was showered with critical praise, commercial success, and awards-show love. But Rainbow, her solo album released that same year, found her floundering somewhere in between pop and country. Even for how many albums she’s released in her career, it’s hard to find too many clunkers in the Parton catalog. But you could argue Rainbow sinks to that level.

Luckily, Parton made a more sure-footed return to country in 1989 with White Limozeen. But even with that success, she had to deal with skepticism from record labels who favored younger artists. She turned to producer Steve Buckingham and told him of her troubles, as Buckingham remembered in an interview with Style Weekly:

“She told me, ‘I want to make a real country record, but all of the bigwigs say I can’t do it.’ I thought, Jeez, if you can’t trust Dolly Parton to make a country record…”

Unlike White Limozeen, Parton would write the majority of the album that would become Eagle When She Flies. The combination of her songwriting, coupled with Buckingham’s sympathetic production, proved irresistible, and it became her first No. 1 country album in more than a decade.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that it had a wonderful title track that would be released as the album’s third single. And she received a little help from her movie career to get the inspiration she needed.

[RELATED: Dolly Parton Covers 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 Hit “What’s Up?” Featuring Linda Perry]

From Screen to Studio

In 1989, Parton was part of the star-studded ensemble cast of the film Steel Magnolias, trading barbs and tears with Sally Field, Julia Roberts, and Shirley MacLaine. Parton attempted to write a theme song for the movie, so moved was she by the dialogue and the camaraderie between the characters (and between the actresses offscreen as well).

The film’s producers decided against a theme song, leaving “Eagle When She Flies,” the song Parton had composed, an orphan. But she brought it back out for the ’91 album, and she loved it so much that she made it the album’s title track.

Parton spoke about writing the song in her 2020 book Songteller:

“I relate to eagles, somehow. Eagles are the strong ones, flying the hardest, the fastest, the highest. I didn’t realize how much I write about eagles until somebody brought it to my attention. I must just relate to the idea of soaring. I like things with wings. If I ain’t writing about angels, I’m writing about eagles or butterflies. I just love things that can move and get on out of here.”

Parton has made her affinity for the birds evident elsewhere. At Dollywood, the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, according to the park’s website, is a “30,000-square-foot aviary” that “houses the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.”

What Is the Meaning Behind “Eagle When She Flies?”

Set to a melody that billows from unassuming to soaring, “Eagle When She Flies” sings the praises of women everywhere. And it does so not by sugar-coating everything, but by taking a realistic look at the ups and downs of a woman’s life. Through it all, the resiliency shines through, resiliency which you can hear in Parton’s powerful vocal.

It’s also an excellent example of how to extend a metaphor through a song without overdoing it. And it’s filled with subtle touches that make it listenable, such as when Parton stretches out the phrasing of the word “broken” to form an unexpected rhyme with “when” leading into the refrain.

The origins of the song make themselves clear when Parton refers to magnolias. Parton strings some lovely imagery together as the song progresses:

Gentle as the sweet magnolia
Strong as steel, her faith and pride
She’s an everlasting shoulder
She’s the leaning post of life
She hurts deep and when she weeps
She’s just as fragile as a child
And she’s a sparrow when she’s broken
But she’s an eagle when she flies

The way she lists all of these characteristics, ironically enough, is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” which has been dinged by some critics for being misogynistic. But whereas Dylan was coming from the perspective of a jilted lover, Parton is looking at it as a woman who has lived through all of those conflicting experiences and emotions.

The Eagle’s Aftermath

“Eagle When She Flies” has enjoyed a long shelf life ever since it was a Top 40 country hit upon its original release. When Parton joined The Highwomen on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019, it was one of the songs she played. In 2021, Jose Feliciano did a Latin-flavored version with Parton helping out on vocals.

While it wasn’t one of her biggest hits, “Eagle When She Flies” is still one of Dolly Parton’s finest individual songs. It’s an anthem for all women, but it says so much about the talent and empathy of the one particular woman who wrote and performed it.

Photo Credit: Will Russell/Getty Images

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