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Dolly Parton: Stories And Facts About The Nashville Legend

Icons | February 2, 2020

Left: Dolly Parton getting ready for her closeup. Right: Parton with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Source: IMDB

Dolly Parton is a story with a soundtrack. Hits like "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," and "9 to 5" make us smile and sing along, but the arc of her life from poverty to massive success is every bit as entertaining. Parton is still going strong today, with the same spirit and country sass we've seen over her more-than 50-year career.

Poor Dolly

The replica of Dolly Parton's childhood home at Dollywood. Source: curbed.com

Dolly Parton was born into the most humble of beginnings. Her father, a sharecropper in Tennessee’s Appalachian mountains, had so little money at the time of her birth that he had to pay the doctor (who also the preacher) with a sack of cornmeal in order for him to deliver the baby. Growing up, she lived in a small wood cabin without electricity or running water, “unless you ran to get it,'' she often jokes, and had to share beds with any number of her 11 siblings over the years. No, that’s not a typo. Her parents really had 12 children.

Dolly Parton Would Eat Anything

Dolly Parton, 1977 Wikipedia Commons

Barely 24 hours had passed since being handed her high school diploma, and there was 17 year old Parton out on the open road and headed to none other than the Country Music Capital of the World, Nashville, TN. Fame and fortune didn’t come easy. Like a caricature of the starving artist, Parton would pick from discarded plates and room service carts at hotels to create a “soup” with the ingredients using the free mustard and ketchup packages when she couldn't afford groceries. Yum.

Dolly Parton And Porter Wagoner Were A Successful Country Duo

Parton had a some successes with her early songs, specifically “Dumb Blonde,” which would come to inform her now famous persona. She caught the attention of the singer, producer and future Country Music Hall of Famer Porter Wagoner, who hosted the weekly Porter Wagoner Show. His previous female vocal accomplice, Norma Jean, had just left and the young upstart Dolly Parton seemed like the perfect replacement... or so he thought. The 20-year-old Parton was unfortunately booed during her very first performance on the Porter Wagoner Show. She later returned back on stage with a shaken, weepy voice. According to her autobiography, many audience members even went so far as to chant “Norma Jean” during the commercial breaks. Rude. Luckily, Wagoner saw her potential and insisted she stayed. The audience’s attitude quickly changed when Wagoner and Parton began performing vibrant, energetic and captivating duets together, several of which made the Country top 10 in the late '60s and early '70s.

Dolly Parton Got Bigger Than Porter Wagoner

Hello, I'm Dolly. Public Domain, Library of Congress

Parton became popular enough to start branching out into a solo career, but Wagoner was against the idea. They were, after all, electric together and he wanted her to stay in her lane and remain his pretty young side singer. Parton, on the other hand, knew she could become a breakthrough, mainstream, bonafide superstar. This was a brutal professional and personal battle which eventually resulted in a one million dollar lawsuit against Parton who actually settled and paid Wagner, despite the fact that he had almost no legal leg to stand on. He later admitted great regret for the way he handled her departure and apologized. Parton was one of the last people to visit him in hospice and was by his side when he died from lung cancer in 2007.

'If I Should Stay...'

Whitney Houston. Source: Wikipedia Commons

On the bright side, the conflict led to two of her greatest songs, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and “I Will Always Love You." Famously, she first sang the latter in front of Wagoner as a way of announcing her departure from the show. The song was rerecorded by powerhouse Whitney Houston for the film The Bodyguard, and that version is, to date, the single most successful song recorded by a female artist worldwide. “I Will Always Love You” is also uniquely successful in its ability to return to Billboard’s Hot 100, placing #1 in 1974, #1 in 1992, and #3 in 2012. Three top three in three decades. Now, that’s a darn good song.

Champion Of The Working Stiff

Parton couldn’t be contained by the music world alone, and in the 80’s found parallel success in critically acclaimed films like Steel Magnolias, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and smash hit 9 to 5. The song 9 to 5, written and recorded by Parton, is still seen by critics as one of the most impactful songs regarding issues facing the working class, and is often used at rallies by politicians whose platforms revolve around worker’s rights and economic inequality. 

Source: mypigeonforge.com

And if that wasn’t enough, she decided to celebrate her Appalachian roots by opening a theme park appropriately named “Dollywood” just across the mountain from her homestead in Pigeon Forge, TN. Although she may have explored Hollywood and the expansive world of the Music Industry, Parton never severed her strong ties to home. Dollywood still receives millions of visitors a year, and is one of the largest employers in the area. In 2016 when wildfires ravaged Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas, Parton didn’t flinch before donating more than 3 million dollars to local residents. She is also a benefactor of scholarships and a book delivery service to homes with children under 5 years of age to promote literacy, as her father never learned how to read despite being “the smartest man” she ever knew.

Dolly Parton In The 21st Century

Parton at Dollywood. Wikimedia Commons, 2014

Although her popularity suffered a dip in the 1990s, she is having a major resurgence as younger generations are rediscovering her talent and ever enduring gracious attitude. While some have criticized her refusal to delve into politics, others have applauded her inclusivity. She stands by the idea that she’s “not in politics, [she’s] an entertainer” and chooses not to talk about specific politicians despite her own personal ideology. According to the 2019 podcast Dolly Parton’s America”, her concerts are one of the few places you’ll see a truly diverse crowd of people; all races, all genders, from cowboy hats to church hats to ten inch wigs on drag queens. Everyone is welcome, and everyone belongs. Despite their differences, Parton is able to bring people together from all over the country to look at the world from her side and her side only. And heck, isn’t that what great art is supposed to do?

Tags: 1970s Country Music | Dolly Parton | Ladies

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!