If Carl hadn’t asked, it wouldn’t have ever happened.
Dolly Parton and her husband, Carl Dean, had been married — very happily — for a few months when it occurred to him to ask her a question. Had she been with men before him, he wanted to know? Parton was shocked. What did it matter? The men in her past had nothing to do with their present, or any woman’s present. So she told Dean the truth, because that’s what Parton always does: tells the God-honest truth, even if it hurts.
“See, I had had sex before we met, but I hadn’t mentioned it, and he hadn’t asked,” Parton told Rolling Stone in 2003. “We were married for eight months, happy as we could be, and all of a sudden he decides to ask. I told him the truth, and it broke his heart. He could not get over that for the longest time. I thought, ‘Well, my goodness, what’s the big damn deal?'”
Parton couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair it all felt, and about the brutally clear double standards we so often applied to women in relationships, and out. Naturally, those thoughts ended up in a song: “Just Because I’m a Woman,” the title track of her second album and her first as a solo recording artist for RCA Victor. “Yes, I’ve made my mistakes / But listen and understand / My mistakes are no worse than yours / Just because I’m a woman,” Parton sang to a classic, weeping country waltz.
Parton wasn’t issuing an apology, though — she was mournful not for her dalliances, but for a world where women weren’t offered the same grace as the men around them. It was 1968, and the feminist revolution was unfolding around her. No one else in country music, let alone the south, was singing about anything vaguely similar, with Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” still several years from release. Though Parton rejected the label of “feminist,” as she did any sort of political affiliation, “Just Because I am a Woman” showed that it wasn’t because she wasn’t willing to stand up for what she believed in: she just wanted to do it all on her own terms, in the most inclusive way possible. Many radio stations had a problem with the song and refused to play it, though it did hit No. 1 in South Africa — a foreshadowing of the international star she would become, her lyrics resonating all around the world.
That title track was the only single from Just Because I’m a Woman, which was recorded at RCA Studio B in Nashville. Parton had just fulfilled her contract with Monument, and was looking to further establish herself as a solo artist and writer outside of simultaneously acting as Porter Wagoner’s right-hand woman (or his “Girl Singer,” as he put it). With frequent collaborator and Nashville Sound architect Bob Ferguson as producer, Parton collected some songs primarily written by others — “I Wish I Felt This Way At Home” by Harlan Howard and “Love And Learn” by her uncle Bill Owens among them — that expressed a range of romantic emotions and entanglements. But it’s her self-written moments, “Just Because I’m a Woman” included, that stood out the most. “The Bridge,” which ends with a hopeless, pregnant woman taking her own life, is a heartbreaking standout that not only explores a taboo topic, but also brings her faith in God into play. As a daughter of rural East Tennessee, growing up in poverty, Parton was intentional to pluck varied stories from her own upbringing: not just the sweet and tender moments of country simplicity, but the struggle and anguish that comes along, too. Parton had experienced suicide in her own family, and wasn’t nervous to bring such an uncomfortable subject to the table. If anything, she wanted people to be able to talk about it out in the open more easily.
Another song, “I’ll Oilwells Love You,” written by Parton and Owens, shows her long-game kind of humor — the payoff is its rhyme-in-title cousin song, “I Will Always Love You,” transforming into a generational classic and the best-selling single by a woman of all time when Whitney Houston recorded it. And the album’s opener, “You’re Gonna Be Sorry,” could be a more vengeful prequel to “Jolene.” “While you were busy makin’ out, I was busy makin’ plans for checkin’ out,” Parton sang. “And when you find I’m gone, you’re gonna be sorry.” Parton made it clear from the beginning that the protagonists of her songs were women all across the spectrum of human emotion: They could just as easily be fragile and lovelorn as they were ready to kick a cheating man to the curb, and all of these feelings were equally valid and empowered. They were tender, and they were trouble when they needed to be.
Parton made her debut on the Porter Wagoner show in September of 1967, with their first album, Just Between You and Me, released mere months before Just Because I’m a Woman — with the LP’s names so similar in title, it’s hard not to see them in conversation, as Parton’s career had to be until she split ways with Wagoner in the ’70s. But her profile and songwriting status was rising both with and without Wagoner, with Parton busy building the foundation of a career that would reach unparalleled heights in the years and decades to come: not because she was a woman, but not in spite of it, either.