Dolly Parton’s impeccable gift for turning an intimately personal anecdote into a universally embraced anthem has never been truer than with her “Coat of Many Colors.” The intricately detailed story song, which she recorded in April 1971 just as her solo career was beginning to take off, is one of the reasons Parton earned such sobriquets as “a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott” or “The Charles Dickens of country music.” As she goes “Wandering once again, back to the seasons of my youth,” Parton takes listeners along with her to a place w even the most unworldly of us find common ground with one of the most famous women in country music.
In her 1994 autobiography Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Parton quips that her family of 14 was “Poor as Job’s turkey.” One year, when Dolly was around 9 years old, her mother Avie Lee decided that her daughter needed a warm coat to wear.
Even though she thought they would understand when she told them about the coat’s Biblical inspiration – of Joseph and a likewise colorful coat he wore because he was his father’s favored son – Parton’s memory of her school friends making fun of her stung the sensitive, perceptive young girl for a long time.
While “Coat of Many Colors” would only reach Number Four on the country chart after it was released late in 1971, it has gone on to become a signature song and concert staple for Parton.
For the 1982 LP The Winning Hand, which features previously recorded songs from Parton, Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee and Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash contributed liner notes in which he stated it was Parton who helped turn him to the Bible after he heard “Coat of Many Colors” for the first time.
Parton herself would joke that the song’s financial success took the sting out of the memory of being taunted by her classmates, but her attempt to repay her mother for the coat didn’t get the reaction she expected.
In her autobiography, Parton recalls suggesting that the two of them go to Knoxville so Dolly could buy her mother a mink coat, but the elder Parton wouldn’t hear of it.