With a career spanning six decades, Dolly Parton is one of the most iconic country music artists of all time. She began her career performing as a child and left home for Nashville the day after graduating high school. Although she didn't hit it big right away, Parton had what it takes to become a star, and she's since collected honors for 16 different Hall of Fames. Now in her 70's, Parton isn't showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon. Keep reading to learn Parton's struggles, success, and the relationships she built to help her get to where she is today.
Big Family, Little Money
Dolly Parton was born in 1946 in Sevierville, Tennessee, the fourth child of twelve. She described her upbringing in a one-room cabin in the Great Smokey Mountains as being "dirt poor." Her father worked in construction and farming, while her mother, oftentimes not in great health after giving birth to 12 kids by the age of 35, stayed at home raising Parton and her eleven siblings.
At eight-years-old, Parton was given her first guitar, and she began performing at the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, where her grandfather was a pastor.
By the age of 10, Parton was a true performer and appeared on local television and radio stations around Eastern Tennesse. Her early talent was undeniable. She appeared on The Cas Walker Show before making it to the big show, The Grand Ole Opry, at just 13 years old.
That's when she joined Goldband Records and met Johnny Cash, who told her to pursue her passion and follow her instincts. Parton knew that she was born to be a musician.
Career After High School
Parton attended high school at Sevier County High School in Sevierville, Tennessee. The day after she graduated in 1964, she moved to Nashville to pursue her career in music full-time. Things didn't fall into place for her as a performer right away, but she gained a reputation as a talented songwriter.
Teaming up with her uncle Bill Owens, together they were able to write two songs that made it into the top ten on the charts. In 1966, Bill Phillips sang, "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," and in 1967 "Fuel the Flame" by Skeeter Davis became a hit.
The Label Wanted Her To Do Pop, But Parton Wanted To Sing Country
In 1965, Parton signed a contract with Monument Records. 19-years-old at the time, the label wanted Parton to record and perform pop music for other teenagers. She obliged, but none of the singles they released went very far.
Then, she sang harmony on a Bill Phillips track in 1966. The song was a hit, and Parton had officially made her country debut. In 1976, she released her first full-length album, Hello, I'm Dolly. Two of her songs made it onto the country charts, at No. 17 and No. 24.
She Joined The Porter Wagoner Show 1967-1974
By 1967, Parton had broken into the country music scene as not only a songwriter but as a performer, too. Her talent caught the eye of country music singer Porter Wagoner, aka "Mr. Grand Ole Opry" and he invited Parton to co-host his self-titled television show.
The television audience didn't welcome Parton with a warm reception, however. She was filling the spot of Norma Jean, who had recently left. The members of the audience were so brash, they went as far as to chant for Jean while Parton was on stage. She powered through it and ended up staying on the show for seven years, until 1974.
Struggling Solo Career
By the late '60s, Parton had proved herself as a successful songwriter and duet artist with Wagoner, but her main focus and her true dream was to have a solo career as a country artist. Under the RCA Victor label, Parton released a solo recording, a single titled, "Just Because I'm A Woman." Released in summer 1968, it climbed to No. 17 on the country music charts, giving Parton some hope to keep pushing forward.
Two years later, Parton still wasn't where she expected to be in her solo career. Wagoner suggested that she cover Jimmie Rodger's "Mule Skinner Blues." The single hit No. 3. then, her single "Joshua" shot to No. 1.
Her Singles Kept Hitting The Charts
Parton's solo career was in full swing in the early '70s, and her singles continued to top the charts, including "Coat of Many Colors," "Touch Your Woman," "My Tennessee Mountain Home," and "Travelin' Man." In 1973, her single "Jolene" earned international success, topping both the country charts and across the pond in the UK.
Parton also became recognized for her fearlessly unique style. In a 1977 interview with Barbara Walters, Parton said, "I don't like to be like everyone else. I would never stoop so low to be fashionable, that's the easiest thing in the world to do."
Parton met producer and talent manager Sandy Gallin in 1976 and the two discussed Parton branching out into other genres to capture a wider audience. They ended up working together for 25 years and launched Sandollar Productions, a film, and television company that gained many awards and produced Father of the Bride, Sabrina, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
They were also close friends, and in Parton's autobiography, she wrote, "I instantly felt as if all my life I had been waiting for Sandy. In that one moment, I realized I had found someone who understood me completely. That made me want to cry."
Parton Teamed Up For Trio Album
In 1987, Parton teamed up with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt to release the album Trio, which stayed at No. 1 on Billboard's Country Albums chart for five weeks. Not only that, but the album featured four singles that reached the Top 10 on the Country Singles chart.
The women took home the Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo of Group with Vocal and received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Parton continued her success through the '90s, branching out into bluegrass and winning more Grammy's for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
The Songs She's Written Have Become Big Hits
Parton has taken her career in many directions, but she never drifted away from songwriting. Some of the songs she's written for other artists include "I Will Always Love You," recorded and performed by Whitney Houston, LeAnn Rimes, and Kenny Rogers over the years.
She also wrote "9 to 5" and "Travelin' Thru", and has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song in 1980 and 2005 and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song the same year.
Parton Invests in Dollywood Theme Parks
Once she hit it big time in songwriting, performing, and as a co-owner of television production company, she looked elsewhere to invest. What she found was a tourist attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, renamed Silver Dollar City. Parton partnered with Herschend Family Entertainment to become a co-owner of the theme park, and brand it "Dollywood."
The park includes a dinner theater, waterpark, spa, and other rides. In 2019, the park was reopened with $37 million in improvements and expansion. A Dollywood park also opened in Branson, Missouri, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Dolly Does Acting
A talented performer, Parton decided to try her hand at acting. She took on two self-titled variety TV shows and appeared on numerous others, including American Idol and Cher's variety show. She wasn't just there to say she did it, either. Parton was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Variety Program.
While she enjoyed having her hand in so many projects at once, hosting Dolly! was taking its toll on her vocal cords, affecting her singing career. So she asked to be released from her contract. Her movie performances in 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas received high ratings.
Her Husband Has Only Seen Her Perform Once
Parton does have a husband, Carl Thomas Dean. Born and raised in Nashville, Dean managed an asphalt road-paving business in town. A simple man, he never wants to share the spotlight with his wife. He rarely accompanies her to any events and has only seen Parton perform once!
Married since 1966, Parton insists the two do spend a lot of time together. "We know a few little places we can go without being bothered," she told Today. They keep it simple, and go on dates through the drive-thru at McDonald's, or taking their camper to the Tennessee countryside to picnic.
She Doesn't Deny Having Plastic Surgery and Wearing a Lot of Makeup
Parton's big hair, makeup, and over-the-top outfits are part of what makes her who she is, and what her fans love about her. She's never hesitated to be herself and go full-glam. When asked about getting plastic surgery, Parton commented, "It's like what I always say: I may look fake but I’m real where it counts."
She knew she wanted to achieve a certain appearance, saying, "My look is really based on a country girl's idea of glam. I wasn't naturally pretty, so I make the most of anything I've got." She's even revealed that she wears a full face of makeup when she goes to sleep, in case of an emergency.
She Lost a Look-a-Like Contest Featuring Herself
Dolly Parton's look is iconic and original- no one is quite like the Queen of Country. However, when she entered a Look-A-Like contest, with people trying to look like her, she lost! She was in Los Angeles when she spotted people dressed up like her on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Known for her playful sense of humor, Parton stepped in and signed up. You would have thought she would take home the prize, but no. Parton recalled that she, "just walked up on stage…I didn't win. I didn’t even come close, I don’t think." There was a catch, however... She was the only female in the contest!
She Owns A Theme Park, But Doesn't Ride the Rides
Ironically, although Parton owns a theme park filled with rides, she doesn't enjoy riding on them herself. She's sat on the stopped ferris wheel to entertain park guests, but other than that, she's never ridden any of the rides. It turns out, she gets motion sickness.
Parton said, "My daddy used to say, ‘I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,’ I am the same way. I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."
Does Dolly Have Secret Tattoos?
For years, rumors have swirled about Dolly Parton being covered in tattoos. At first, the rumors were spurred by her consistent clothing choices, always long sleeves and never anything sheer or a very low neckline. Some people believe she has tattoos to cover her scars from surgeries.
Two celebrities have spilled the beans, too. Roseanne Barr and Jennifer Saunders ran into Parton at a restaurant and claimed that the Queen of Country showed them her tattoos. Roseanne appeared on Craig Ferguson's talk show and said, "I shouldn't even tell this. Dolly Parton is totally tattooed…She showed me." Roseanne continued, “She's got all these awesome tattoos all over body— no black or blue lines, all like, pastel gorgeous bows all over everything."
She's the Godmother of Miley Cyrus
While Parton and Dean never had any children of their own, they do have special relationships. They both helped raise Dean's younger siblings, and Parton is the Godmother of singer-actress Miley Cyrus. They've performed duets together, including Parton's hit single, "Jolene."
Parton has been friends with Miley's father Billy Ray since before Miley was born. The two became great friends and when Miley was born, Billy Ray asked Parton to be her godmother. Today, Miley refers to her as 'Aunt Dolly' and even played Hannah Montana's aunt on Miley's Disney show.
Dolly Supports Her Goddaughter
In 2014, media critics had it out for Miley, as she ditched Disney and began coming into her own as a young woman and solo musical artist. When Parton was asked what she thought about her goddaughter's recent actions, Parton told TIME, "If I didn't know how smart and talented Miley is, I might worry about her. But I've watched her grow up. So I don't."
She also understands Miley's need for career growth. "She knows what she's doing. She was very proud of the work she did as Hannah Montana, but people were gonna leave her there forever... The girl is smart... I did it my way, so why can't she do it her way?"
Dolly Can Relate To Miley's Situation
Parton supports Miley and her freedom to be her authentic self, even if she makes some controversial choices. Parton told The Sunday Times, "...Back in the day, doing my own things my own way, and dressing sexy and showing my cleavage and all that, I got a lot of criticism."
Dolly stuck to her own path, and she wants Miley to be able to do the same for herself. She continued, "Lots of people thought I was making a mistake and that I was just trashy, which I was. So I did go through that, but I don't give her advice. Everyone has to walk this journey according to their own rules."
Parton's Look Is Inspired By A Beautiful Woman She Saw
From the beginning of her career, Parton has put together a certain look from her big blonde wig down to her shoes. Her signature style was inspired by 'country girl glam' but also the lady of the night.
One woman caught Parton's eye, and she knew that she wanted to replicate her look. Parton told ABC News, "There was this woman, we won't call her names, but she was beautiful. I had never seen anybody, you know, with the yellow hair all piled up and the red lipstick and the rouge and the high heeled shoes, and I thought, 'This is what I want to look like.'"
Does Dolly Have A Romantic Relationship With A Female Friend?
When you're in the spotlight for as long as Parton has been, there will be plenty of rumors and interest in your personal life. Although the Queen of Country has long been married, some people speculated that she might be interested in women.
People pointed to her childhood friend Judy Ogle, with whom she has a close relationship, and often compared the two of them to Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. Parton straightened out the rumors when she appeared on Nightline. "Judy and I have been best friends since we were like in third and fourth grade... We still just have a great friendship and relationship and I love her as much as I love anybody in the whole world, but we're not romantically involved."
Dolly Wanted To Leave The Porter Wagoner Show Earlier
Even after the rough start replacing Norma Jean, The Porter Wagoner Show and her duets with Wagoner helped launch Parton's country music career. However, that doesn't mean that she was always happy being apart of the show.
She told CMT, "I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Porter's show for five years. I had been there for seven. And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn." She officially quit on February 19, 1974.
Dolly Quit, Wagoner Sued Her
When two people with strong personalities such as Parton and Wagoner work so closely together, they're bound to have disagreements. But fans of the show and their music had no idea just how deep those grudges were. When Parton quit, Wagoner sued her for breach of contract.
Parton said, "We both believed that we knew what was best for us. Well, he believed he knew what was best for me, too, and I believed that I knew more what was best for me at that time. So, needless to say, there was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn't listening to my reasoning for my going."
Dolly Made a Sweet Gesture Upon Departing
No doubt, Parton was upset that Wagoner had gone so far as to sue her for leaving the show, but she didn't close their partnership with bad blood. Upon leaving, Parton had written a song for Wagoner about how she felt about the situation, wanting him to know how much she appreciated him. She wrote, "I Will Always Love You," with Wagoner in mind.
"I took it in the next morning. I said, 'Sit down, Porter. I've written this song, and I want you to hear it.' So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, 'That's the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.' And he did, and the rest is history."
She Visited Wagoner On His Death Bed
After he produced "I Will Always Love You," reportedly, Parton and Wagoner didn't speak much. Parton's career was skyrocketing and he was still bitter that she left. However, she did make sure to visit him once he was ill.
Parton was beside his bedside, holding his hand when he passed away. She told News Sentinel, "It was really, really hard. I held his hand, and we prayed... Porter's soul was already with God. All that was left was a shell."
Houston's Recording of "I Will Always Love You" is Iconic
Parton's song, "I Will Always Love You," holds a special place in her heart. Not only did it move Porter Wagoner, who she wrote it for, but the song became closely tied to Whitney Houston. Her version of the song held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for an incredible 14 weeks. The song was also played at Houston's funeral.
Parton told Nightline, "When they played it at her funeral and they lifted her coffin up, man, it was like somebody stabbed me in the heart with a knife. It just overwhelmed me."
Did Dolly Regret Allowing Whitney To Sing Her Song?
The entertainment industry loves a good feud. After Whitney Houston found great success covering Parton's "I Will Always Love You," (after Parton's version didn't do very well) rumors of Parton and Houston not getting along began to swirl. In actuality, the two stars spoke highly of each other and had a positive conversation.
In 1993, Houston told Rolling Stone, "I talked to Dolly Parton by phone not too long ago. She said to me [imitates Dolly's accent]: 'Whitney, I just want to tell you something. I'm just honored that you did my song. I just don't know what to tell you, girl.' I said, 'Well, Dolly, you wrote a beautiful song.' And she said: 'Yeah, but it never did that well for me. It did well for you because you put all that stuff into it.'"
Dolly's Foundation Helps Kids Read More
Parton loves to give back and do positive things with her fortune (her estimated net worth is $500 million!). One of the projects that her foundation runs is called Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which sends free books to kids up until the age of five to help them learn and love to read.
There are an incredible 1,600 communities involved in the Imagination Library, serving 850,000 kids in the U.S., Australia, U.K., and Canada.
Her Literacy Program Honors Her Father
Parton always spoke highly of her father, calling him the smartest man that she knows. He was her inspiration for starting the literacy program. In 2015, Parton told Paper, "Where it all really started was with my daddy. He was, without a doubt, the smartest man I have ever known, but he could not read very well. Daddy did an incredible job of providing a good life for our family but there is no telling what he could have achieved if he had learned to read. So the Imagination Library is just one way for me to honor him..."
She went on to add, "Not long before he passed, he told me he was more proud of me for the Imagination Library than anything else I had ever done. I'll never forget that moment. So every time I am called the Book Lady, I think of my Daddy."
The Dollywood Foundation Helps Tennessee Residents
Parton founded the Dollywood Foundation in 1988, soon after she opened the Dollywood theme park. The foundation has offered scholarships for high school students in her hometown area of Tennessee, provided free books to young kids, assisted Tennessee residents who were victims of wildfires, and supported non-profits. The Dollywood Foundation also raises money for HIV + AIDS charities and the American Red Cross.
The Dollywood Foundation has received 3 out of 4 stars from its Form 990's reports and has a total liability of about $2 million.
Dolly Gives Back Because She Remembers Not Having A Lot
When Dolly Parton was born, her family was so poor that they paid the doctor who delivered her a bag of grains for his work. Although she's living in high cotton now, she still remembers growing up in a single room cabin with all of her siblings, trying to get by in rural Tennessee.
In an interview with Paper, Parton said, "..I have always felt I had an obligation to give back. For me, it means a lot fo different things... You also have to give a big chunk of yourself, but I don't mind all that is expected from me. It comes with the territory and I would not change one thing."
Everyone Is Welcome At Dollywood
Dolly Parton's generous heart knows no bounds. The Queen of Country reaches out to people from all walks of life in support, including the gay community. Dollywood Theme Park hosts an annual "Gay Day" for the LGBT community. She also hosts events for Christian groups. In her eyes, everyone is equal, everyone is welcome.
In 2014, Parton said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, "It's a place for entertainment, a place for all families, period. It's for all that... I try to love everybody."
She's Been Through It All, So She Gets It
Just like she can relate to her goddaughter Miley Cyrus' choices and taking on critics, she empathizes with the LGBT community. She told The Hollywood Reporter, "I've struggled enough in my life to be appreciated and understood. I've had to go against all kinds of people through the years just to be myself."
She continued, "I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are and to love who they love. I don't think we should be judgmental. Lord, I've got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else."
Why She Thinks People Can Relate To Her
"I've often said people don't come to see me to see me, they come to see me to see them," Parton told The Guardian. "I've fought for the right to be myself, so that is one of the reasons that the gays and lesbians relate to me. They know that I appreciate everybody for who they are. We are who we are, so why can't we be allowed to be that?"
Parton is one of few country stars that has taken on an active role and spoken positively about the LGBT community. Her strong LGBT following backs her up!
She Accepts Everyone For Who They Are
She didn't have much exposure to the LGBT community, growing up in Tennessee. In a 2016 interview with Pride Source, Parton said that growing up, "We were just mountain people, and I did not know at that time – I sure did not. In my early days we did not know [what gay was]. It didn't take me long to know that people were different and that was always fine with me.
She continued, "I was different too, and I embraced and accepted them and I knew them. I knew them well."
She Gives Positive Advice To Her Fans Who May Need It
In the same Pride interview, Parton said, "I've had many people through the years who I have helped to feel good about themselves. I say, 'You need to let people know who you are and you need to come on out.' You don't need to live your life in darkness – what's the point in that?"
She continued, "You're never gonna be happy; you're gonna be sick. You're not gonna be healthy if you try to suppress your feelings and who you are."
Dolly Went Through A Dark Time
At one point during her marriage to Carl Dean, Parton reportedly had an affair with a man that she never named. She revealed in her book, Dolly on Dolly, Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton that she felt terrible about the situation and spiraled into depression.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed one day, contemplating suicide, holding a gun. That's when her Boston Terrier named Popeye appeared by her side. She wrote, "The tap-tap-tap of his paws jolted me back to reality and I suddenly froze. I put the gun down. Then I prayed. I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God."
Dolly Is Proud To Be Able To Help
It's obvious that Parton puts her full heart into her foundation and is passionate about helping people in her hometown area. On May 8, 2018 Parton wrote an op-ed piece published by CNN, stating that helping Tennessee wildfire victims is the proudest accomplishment of her life. Her foundation has distributed $1,000 a month to 900 families who lost their homes to the fires through "My People Fund."
She gave an additional $5,000 per family, for a total of $10,000 given to each affected household. Parton said, “I know $10,000 can’t solve everything, but I do hope the money will help them to dream again.”
Dolly Has An Incredible Amount Of Awards
Dolly Parton is a legend, and she has the awards to back it up. She's done things her own way, and although her solo career had a slow start, she's more than made up for lost time. She's been inducted into 16 Hall of Fame's, including Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Parton also has been nominated for 46 Grammy Awards, tying Bruce Springsteen for the tenth most Grammy nominations in history. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy in 2011 and has her name on two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Parton is a true living legend!