Any fan of Dolly Parton knows she comes from the most humble of Appalachian beginnings. Born and raised in Sevierville, Tennessee, the legendary “songteller” is the daughter of a sharecropper – her father Robert – and the fourth of twelve children reared by her mother, Avie.
“I always feel like I got my work ethic from my dad,” the icon tells listeners in her debut Fitness+ episode, where she discusses her father at length.
As for who that hard-workin’ dad was, Robert Lee Parton was born on March 22, 1921 in Sevierville, Tennessee – far before it became the Dollywood-led foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains we know today. Robert was born to Walter and Bessie Parton on their farm, where he and his family would work tirelessly to make ends meet.
The Partons were sharecroppers for a living. This often meant each sibling was destined for a childhood of work rather than school. This wasn’t seen as a slight in any way, but rather as the “proper duty” to one’s family.
This did mean, however, that Robert would never learn how to read or write. His illiteracy would come to mark both him – and his daughter, Dolly Parton – forever. But not in the way anyone would ever expect.
Dolly Parton’s Deep Appalachian Roots
As was often the case, Robert Lee would grow up to become a sharecropper himself. He, Avie, and their 12 children – including Dolly – would work tirelessly to make a living in the Appalachian mountains. In their hard life, the ability to read or write wasn’t a priority. Neither attribute put food on the table for the Partons.
Yet Robert Lee was far from “ignorant,” as many think illiterate individuals are. In fact, Dolly Parton’s official website describes her beloved father as “a knowledgeable farmer, shrewd deal maker and skilled tradesman.”
As such, Robert Lee Parton would come to own the land he once sharecropped. There, he would grow his own tobacco on it to support the family. While he advanced in life, daughter Dolly Parton says he never lost his humble spirit, sense of humor, or the deep love he instilled within her.
It is through this bond that she would later ask her father to help her launch The Imagination Library – Dolly’s signature charity foundation by which her family distributes books to children in need across the globe.
“When I got this idea to do the Imagination Library I wanted to get Daddy involved in it. I wanted him to help me with that so he could take the pride in that and so he did. He got to live long enough to hear the kids call me the Book Lady,” her website quotes.