The Dolly Parton renaissance is upon us. In the last year, the American country music icon’s name has gilded everything from podcasts to college courses, a revived musical to a Netflix documentary. Her resurgence can even be seen in baby names.
Jolene, the titular character of Parton’s 1973 chart-topping hit, has not seen this much popularity as a baby name since, well, the release of the song in the ’70s.
The heartbreak anthem, sung from the perspective of Parton, literally begs Jolene: “Please, don’t take my man.” Parton’s pleas aside, each chorus of the song repeats Jolene’s name four times in a row, twice. Each verse ends with the name almost as a punctuation. Finally, the song leaves us with two more ethereal utterances. All told, that’s 31 times the name gets a chance to worm its way inside a listener’s head.
“There’s no question that the history of the name Jolene is tied up inextricably with the song,” says Laura Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard.” Before the hit, Wattenberg says, Jolene was just another compound mid-century name, where two names fuse to become one.
Now, though, the song itself is hard to escape, even if you don’t fancy yourself a Dolly Parton fan. It’s been covered well over a hundred times by artists from Miley Cyrus to Jack White of the White Stripes, according to Secondhandsongs.com.
With close to one million sales in the US, the song’s popularity alone doesn’t kick-off name adoption. “I think it ultimately comes down to my Golden Rule of Celebrity Baby Names: It’s not about the fame, it’s about the name,” says Wattenberg. When baby names come into vogue, they require both the appeal of the name and the appeal of the sound. “Jolene features two long vowel sounds,” Wattenberg explains, “which are highly prized in contemporary name style.”
But what about Dolly? Sadly, the name has been a falling star since the start of the last century. “It’s not a name that’s easily taken seriously,” says Wattenberg. “Dolly Parton has leaned into the name and made it work for her, with her larger-than-life exuberance.” For now, at least, Jolene is just more captivating.