Dolly Parton, de facto Queen of Appalachia, and everyone’s favorite blond-haired honorary grandma celebrated her 75th birthday this January. We celebrate her decades-long career and stunning list of accolades with some lesser-known facts about the woman behind hits like "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," and "9 to 5."
Dolly Parton might be the image of sequin-studded opulence these days, but the oft-bedazzled country singer was born into a poor Appalachian family in the mountains near Sevierville, Tennessee, on January 19, 1946. (A Capricorn queen!)
According to Eastern Sevier County by Michael Williams, Parton's father was a tobacco sharecropper; her mother, the caretaker of one dozen children. Parton was born the fourth child out of 12 in a rustic, two-room cabin. The doctor who helped birth her was paid with a sack of oatmeal.
If being birthed for a sack of oatmeal isn’t enough to prove Parton's less-than-glamorous upbringing, her songs also offer a direct insight into life in poverty-stricken eastern Tennessee. In 2015, Parton spoke to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International, citing Coat of Many Colors as her favorite song.
“It’s a true story from my childhood,” the singer explains, “about a little ragged coat that Mama made for me and tried to make me proud of it by telling me the story of Joseph from the Bible. The song is really, really special.”
Clothes weren’t the only things thrifted in Parton's life. Music was a family tradition in early 20th-century Appalachia, and the young singer was constantly surrounded by various musical instruments and familial jam sessions.
“I had two uncles who played,” Parton told Reverb in 2017. “Uncle Bill, who helped me get into the business, and Uncle Lewis, who was also a great guitar player. He had this little Martin guitar that I loved, so when he saw how serious I was about my music, he gave me his little Martin guitar. It was my treasure.”
Today, the prolific songwriter is estimated to have written around 3,000 songs. Around 450 have already been recorded, and according to her book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, one mystery song remains under lock and key until 2045.
She recently received two Guinness World Records for “Most Decades with a Top 20 Hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Song Chart" (six) and “Most Hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Song chart by a female artist” (107). She now has a net worth of around $600 million.
The smash-hit I Will Always Love You was featured on Parton’s February 1974 release, Jolene. By June of that same year, the ballad was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The song has garnered Parton millions of dollars, but it might not have been so if she had let the King of Rock and Roll have his way.
To Parton’s delight, Elvis Presley was planning on recording a cover of the chart-topping song. That is until Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton they expected half of the publishing rights upon release of Presley’s version.
In a podcast interview with Reba McIntire, Dolly recalls saying, “Well, that throws new light on this. Because I can’t give you half the publishing. I’m gonna leave that to my family. I can’t do that. And [Parker] said, ‘well, then we can’t do it.’ I cried all night.”
Parton wrote her classic hit for her friend and colleague, Porter Wagner, but the concept of eternal love isn’t lost on the country star. Though he’s careful to stay out of her sparkling spotlight, Parton has been with her husband, Carl Thomas Dean (pictured), since 1964.
His lack of face time with the media led some to believe the husband never actually existed, but Parton dispels those rumors in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. Being in the spotlight “isn’t who he is,” Parton explains. “He’s a quiet, reserved person."
Their long-lasting romance started outside of Nashville’s Wishy Washy Laundromat. “I was surprised and delighted that while he talked to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me),” the well-endowed singer reflected. They got hitched in 1966 in Ringgold, Georgia, and never looked back. Swoon.
Dolly Parton might be well-known for her working woman anthem 9 to 5, but in reality, this dedicated businesswoman and songwriter prefers to start her days quite a bit earlier.
“I’m almost always up for good around 3am,” Parton told RuPaul in a 2020 Marie Claire interview. “I do some of my best spiritual work, some of my best writing, and some of my business work—call-ins and letters that I’m writing or whatever—between 3am and 7am. I get more work done during that little period of time when the world is calm, energies are down, and I just feel like a farmer.”
Parton’s never been shy about her signature “Dolly” look being modeled after the “town tramp." "I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world, with all that bleached hair and bright-red lipstick. People would say, ‘Oh, she’s just trash,’ and I’d think, ‘that’s what I want to be when I grow up,’” she told Rolling Stone.
Her campy, vampy style was put to the test—and failed—in a Dolly Parton look-alike contest for drag queens, the singer told ABC in 2014. “I just over-exaggerated, made my beauty mark bigger, the eyes bigger, everything,” Parton laughs. “I just got in the line and walked across, and they just thought I was some little short gay guy. I got the least applause.”
Maybe her look wasn’t quite on point that evening, but Parton has nevertheless cemented herself as an iconic champion of LGBTQ+ rights, so all’s well that ends well.
Remember that $600 million net worth? Dolly Parton has been working hard to return that wealth to her community and fans since 1988. From the Dollywood Foundation to scholarships to fundraisers to literacy programs, Parton has proven to be as prolific of a philanthropist as she is a songstress.
Most recently, Parton raised $9 million for the Tennessee Wildfire Relief in 2016. She also donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in April of last year to support the effort to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine. Her support facilitated the creation of the Moderna vaccine.
A touring musician's life is not an easy one, but traveling across the country in an RV like Dolly’s definitely helps. The tour bus is outfitted with a private bed and bath for the country superstar, a fully functional kitchen, and gorgeous interior decoration—oh, and a special cabinet for her sizable wig collection.
Unsurprisingly, the singer opts for her ultra-luxe bus instead of checking into hotels while on the road. She also has a unique on-the-go skincare routine. Parton told The New York Times, “you never know if you’re going to wreck the bus, you never know if you’re going to be somewhere in a hotel and there’s going to be a fire, so I leave my make-up on at night and clean my face in the morning.”
A life-size bronze statue of a young, barefoot Dolly Parton, acoustic guitar in her lap, was erected in front of the Sevier County Courthouse in 1987.
Earlier this year, Tennessean lawmakers proposed that another statue of Parton be erected in the state Capitol. “I am honored and humbled by [the Tennessean legislature’s] intention,” Parton responded, “but with all that is going on in the world, I don’t think that putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.”
“Perhaps after I’m gone, if you still feel I deserve it, then I’m certain I will stand proud in our great State Capitol as a grateful Tennessean. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try to do good work to make this great state proud.”
So sweet. So pure. Long live the Queen of Appalachia!