Dolly Parton is an icon. Her long and storied musical career is the foundation for a life characterized by humor, kindness, and love. Her songs, story, and charitable actions have touched the lives of millions of people around the world.
In celebration of her 29th (or 75th, depending on who you ask) birthday, we are looking back at Dolly Parton’s life and career.
Dolly Parton’s Early Life
Dolly Parton was born in a cabin in Pittman Center, Tennessee, the fourth of twelve children. She has described her family as “dirt poor.” However, she looks back fondly at her childhood. Their family didn’t have much but they had plenty of love.
Dolly Parton has long credited her father for her business savvy. Her mother’s side of the family, according to Parton, sparked her love of music. At the age of seven, she began playing a homemade guitar. The next year, she received her first real guitar from her uncle.
It wasn’t long before Dolly Parton was performing. At the age of ten, she was on “The Cas Walker Show,” which was broadcast on television and radio in Knoxville, Tennessee. By thirteen, Dolly recorded her first single and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. During her first appearance, she met Johnny Cash who told her to follow her instincts in her musical career. She would carry this piece of advice with her for the years to come.
The Day after graduating from Sevier Country High School, Dolly moved to Nashville. There, she found success as a songwriter. She wrote several songs, two of which were top-10 hits. Bill Phillips took her song “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” to number two on the country chart. This may be one of the most important songs in her career.
Dolly was signed to Monument records with Phillips cut the song. The label wanted Dolly Parton to be a pop singer. She wanted to sing country music but they wouldn’t allow it. She sang harmony on Phillips’ single. After it climbed the charts, the label allowed Parton to record country music. Her first country hit was “Dumb Blonde.”
The Porter Wagoner Show
A year after “Dumb Blonde” hit, Porter Wagoner invited Dolly Parton to join “The Porter Wagoner Show.” After that, Wagoner convinced RCA Victor to sign her as a recording artist. The label demanded that her first single be a duet with Wagoner. “The Last Thing on My Mind” was the first of many top-ten hits for the duo.
For years, Dolly Parton appeared on Wagoner’s shows. Their duets continued to see chart success. However, her solo releases were largely ignored. After having a number-three hit with “Mule Skinner Blues.” Dolly’s solo career started to pick up. She released “Jolene” in 1973 and it hit the top of the country chart in 1974. At this point, Parton wanted to strike out on her own.
After months of arguing with Wagoner, Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” and sang it to Wagoner. This song convinced him to let Dolly leave his show and truly start her solo career. It was her second number-one hit of 1974.
Dolly Parton started aiming her music at a mainstream pop audience in the late 70s. Her 1977 album “New Harvest…First Gathering,” was a success on the country chart but didn’t make many waves in the pop world. For her next album in the same year, “Here You Come Again,” Parton hooked up with big-time pop producer Gary Klein. This album would be her first million-selling release. It and its singles saw success on both the country and pop charts. She was on her way to being the icon that she is today.
Dolly Goes to the Movies
Dolly Parton’s first feature film role was in “9 to 5” in 1980. The film was a comedy starring Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. It shines a light on discrimination against women in the workplace.
“9 to 5” was a critical and financial success. It pulled in $103 million worldwide. That is over $323 million in today’s money. This film would be the springboard for Parton’s future film roles.
Dolly received two Golden Globe nominations for her performance in the movie. She also received a Gold Globe nomination for the film’s theme song. The song “9 to 5” would earn her two Grammy Awards. One for the Best Female Country Vocal Performance and another for Best Country Song.
Dolly Parton Builds in East Tennessee
Over the years, Dolly Parton has invested millions of dollars in several different business ventures. Among those is The Dollywood Company. This company owns many attractions based in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The attractions include the Dollywood amusement park, Dolly’s Splash Country, and Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Pigeon Forge is not far from where Dolly grew up. In fact, it is in the same county.
When wildfires ripped through the area in 2016, Dolly started the My People Fund. This charity gave families displaced by the fires a $1000 a month stipend. The money came from outside donations as well as The Dollywood Foundation.
Dolly and Education
Dolly Parton has a passion for education. Her father never finished school and the dropout rate in her home county was historically high. As a result, Dolly started The Buddy Program in 1991. Children who signed up for the program were paired up with buddies from their school. If the buddies finished high school together, Dolly would personally hand them a check for $500. This program lowered the dropout rate in Sevier country to 6 percent.
Dolly Parton is also passionate about literacy for children. It is with this in mind that she started the Imagination Library in 1995. The Imagination Library sends one free book to children from birth until they are five years old every month. It started in East Tennessee and slowly spread to the entire country, and countries around the world. Currently, the program has gifted over 150 million books.
Tennessee Loves Dolly Parton
Between her stardom and all of the things has done for her home state, Tennessee loves Dolly Parton. In fact, Dolly is one of the only things that residents of the state can unilaterally agree on. No one dislikes Dolly in Tennessee. If they do, they know better than to speak out about it. If the state legislature could canonize saints, Dolly would probably be the Patron Saint of Appalachia already. As it stands, the best they can do is erect a statue in her honor.
Earlier this month, one Tennessee lawmaker set forth a bill that would do just that. If the bill passes, the statue of Dolly would stand on the grounds of the state capitol grounds. The statue would face the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The location and orientation of the statue are fitting. Her positive effects on the state of Tennessee are immeasurable. At the same time, that piece of advice that Johnny Cash gave her at the Grand Ole Opry all those years ago probably helped to set her on the path that has brought her this far. Dolly Parton followed her heart of gold throughout her musical career. It led her to be a shining light for Tennessee and the rest of the world even in the darkest of times.
Take some time today to enjoy some of Dolly Parton’s great tunes. My personal recommendation comes from her 1999 bluegrass album, “The Grass is Blue.” The song is called “Cash on the Barrelhead” and was originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers in 1956.