By any reasonable standard, Dolly Parton rates as one of the couple dozen greatest musical artists in the history of American popular music. She's certainly one of the half dozen top songwriters in country music history.
RCA Legacy has just put out a two CD Dolly compilation, The Essential Dolly Parton with 37 songs that rates as probably the best Dolly Parton starter kit going. It won't cover all your Dolly needs, but it mostly pretty well covers her 20th century solo career.
It has pretty near all the major early Dolly solo songs that are the backbone of her reputation. Of course, you've got your "Jolene" and "My Tennesse Mountain Home."
Interestingly, they buried what is clearly way her biggest one hit, "I Will Always Love You" in the middle of the disc, rather than leading. They lead instead with her two big feminist statements, "Dumb Blonde" (a good song) and "Just Because I'm a Woman" (a great song).
In the range of Dolly country, I note the very unfortunate absence of the randy three way with the "Travelin' Man" and her mama. Somewhere here, we also could have used "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) ." They've got most everything else there among the obvious basics, though.
This collection does an even better job of representing her later more pop oriented 80s records. As a self-respecting Kentuckian, I was naturally skeptical of this phase in her career. However, listening to them now, it's hard to deny "9 to 5" or "Here You Come Again." Those are just flat superior pieces of pop songwriting. Elvis forgive me, but even the dreaded "Islands in the Stream" duet she recorded with the Antichrist sounds pretty strong now.
Actually, they somewhat overrepresent that stuff, with a number of flat weak pop songs wasting space on disc 2, such as "You're the Only One" and "I Really Got the Feeling."
WHAT'S NOT HERE
The Essential Dolly Parton would give you a good start if you owned no Dolly Parton, but you'd definitely also need to follow up with a Porter & Dolly album. They were perhaps the best country duet act ever. You really can't live without "Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man" or "Holding On to Nothin'." Especially though, you really need some of their good rockin' battle of the sexes duels, particularly "Better Move It On Home" and "I've Been Married Just as Long as You Have."