Growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dolly Parton knew some old timers who allegedly had the gift of clairvoyance. Even her own mother, Avie Lee, was known to have premonitions; one time, she rightly predicted Dolly's brother had been in a car accident and needed help. Yet another prophesying relative inspired this tune from Dolly's third bluegrass album, Halos & Horns. "
The character in 'These Old Bones' was based loosely on a relative of ours who prophesized that I was going to do something special," Dolly recalled in her 2020 book, Songteller. "She laid her hands on me and said, 'This child is anointed.' I was little, so I said, 'Mama, what does 'anointed' mean?' She said, 'That probably means that you're going to do great things for the Lord and do good things in life.' For 'These Old Bones' I created this old woman who lived up in the woods that everybody was afraid of. They thought she was witchy. I sang the old lady's part in the song, the way my Mom and my aunts would sing. So that song is real special to me."
The song title came to Dolly in a dream while she was staying at her Tennessee Mountain Home, the namesake of her 1973 hit. The imagery conjured a "mountain story about some old crazy woman who was psychic." It also brought her late mother's voice to mind.
She explained in a track-by-track interview: "After I wrote the song I got the idea of using Mama for the old woman's voice, mother and daughter. And in the 'duet' at the end, it does sound exactly like me and Mama singing. I'm so glad that I did this, because now I can write more stories about this character, on each album. It touched me when I thought that, because now I can have Mama forever. As long as I live, Mama can be with us, through me."
Dolly's foray into bluegrass helped revive her career. She supported Halos & Horns with a sold-out tour of the US and UK. In America, the album peaked at #4 on the Country chart, while it went to #1 on the Country tally across the pond.
This is also the title of the eighth episode of Dolly Parton's Heartstrings, a 2019 Netflix anthology series that features stories based on her songs. "These Old Bones" follows a young lawyer (Ginnifer Goodwin) who must contend with an eccentric mountain woman (Kathleen Turner) who's rumored to be a witch. The installment was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Made For Television Movie.