Pentatonix, Dolly Parton Parlay 1 Day Into A GRAMMY For "Jolene"

Pentatonix's Scott Hoying recounts the blueprint for rearranging the country classic and how a nerve-wracking studio experience with Dolly Parton turned into magic
  • Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
    Three-time GRAMMY winners Pentatonix at the 59th GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 12, 2017
  • Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
    Eight-time GRAMMY winner Dolly Parton
February 16, 2017 -- 3:44 pm PST
By Scott Hoying/As told to Chuck Crisafulli / GRAMMY.com

(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. In this installment, Pentatonix's Scott Hoying details the making of "Jolene" with Dolly Parton, which won Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the 59th GRAMMY Awards.) 

We got together with Dolly through the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Spotlight Music series. They suggested we record "Jolene," which is what we would have wanted to do anyway. The Pentatonix members got together first and we spent a couple of hours working through the song section by section, figuring out our harmonies and what rhythms we wanted. We came up with an arrangement that was slightly different from the original — something we thought would work better a cappella. When you don't have instruments, an arrangement can start to lull really easily so we wanted to try things that would keep the energy of the song up.

We were on tour and Dolly was on tour so we just had one day to meet her at her studio and rehearse, record and then shoot the video. At first, our arrangement was a little confusing to Dolly because we'd taken a measure out here or added a measure there. She said she'd been singing the song the same way for 50 years and that it was going to take a little time to get used to the adjustments. We said, "We'll change it back! We'll change it back! We'll do whatever you want us to do!" But she said she loved the changes and told us it was the coolest version of the song she'd ever heard. We were so nervous and intimidated because we were working with a legend, but a compliment like that really helped us relax.

Dolly's one of those amazing artists who's even more impressive after you meet her. She was early to the session — all glammed up and ready to go, and she had the best attitude. Not a single bit of divaness about her. She's exactly what you'd hope for when you meet one of your idols. She took some notes on our version and we sang through it a few times and it was just magic.

We recorded live in the studio all singing at the same time, and the second Dolly started singing it was just a big "wow" for all of us. She has one of those iconic, beautiful voices — whether you like country music or not, you can't help but love her voice. When she started singing, the song just totally came to life, and I really loved all the new ad libs she put in. We were assuming that she would sing lead on the whole song, but she suggested that we have a part of the song where we kind of take the lead, so we did — though that was pretty nerve-wracking for us.

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We did one take and then just a couple more safety takes to make sure we had everything and that was it. We all listened to the playback together to hear how it all sounded. The arrangement really worked and Dolly just sang it so perfectly — we were all extremely happy. You don't always get that feeling hearing playback in the studio, but this time after one listen we were confident that we'd been part of something really amazing. 

(Pentatonix — comprising Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Kirstin Maldonado, and Kevin Olusola — won their third career GRAMMY for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for "Jolene." The collaboration earned Dolly Parton her eighth career GRAMMY Award. Parton's original 1973 recording of "Jolene" was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2014.)

(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The UnderworldMe And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

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