Flamboyant Philanthropic Mega-Star
According to one story, Dolly Parton developed her public image from a woman she knew of as a child. She was a flamboyant showy blonde and while many, considered her gaudy and trashy, to Dolly she was beautiful. However, Dolly’s similar image as a buxom, blonde be-wigged heavily be-rouged artiste is only a front. In fact she once told an interviewer: “I’m flashy…and I’m flamboyant. Had I not been a girl I definitely would have been a drag queen.”
For behind the image is a prize winning recording star, an actress, a multi-millionaire business owner and philanthropist who started as a poor Tennessee farm girl.
Born in January, 1946, Dolly Rebecca Parton was fourth in a family of twelve, living in a one room cabin on the Little Pigeon River in Tennessee. Her father Lee, tended his small tobacco farm, supplementing his income with construction jobs. He was also illiterate. In fact Dolly has called him, one of the smartest persons she knew, with a great sense of business. Her mother Avie Lee (who had 12 children by age 35) was often in poor health, but managed to maintain their home, and enrich her children’s heritage with family stories and songs. Dolly’s grandfather was a minister, and so the family was regularly in church, where the musical influence would be a lifelong memory for Dolly. Then when she was small the family moved to a new home on another nearby farm, and this was replicated as a fond memory at Dollywood, Dolly’s theme park. It was also the basis of one of her greatest hits–My Tennessee Mountain Home.
Her family was as Dolly described it “dirt poor”—in fact her father paid the doctor who delivered her—with a sack of cornmeal. Yet despite the poverty, there were many childhood memories that she replicated in her later hits, as well as an ongoing sense of pride in family and heritage—and definitely music. Her first performances were in her grandfather’s church at age six; at age seven she began to use a homemade guitar then a year later her uncle got her the real thing. At the same time she sang on local radio and TV programs, and at age 10 at a Knoxville, Tennessee stations.
In 1964 at age 17 Dolly graduated from high school and the next day headed for Nashville to begin her career as a singer/songwriter. Soon several of her songs (performed by Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr. and others) had placed on the charts. At this time she was promoted as a “bubblegum” singer—with her records directed toward young people. However, Dolly’s dream was to do actual country music.
She got her wish after her recording of Dumb Blonde (one of the few she didn’t write) placed on the charts and was followed by other similar hits. Her first album, Hello, I’m Dolly was issued and in 1967 she joined the TV cast of a show with country artist/TV star Porter Wagner and this led to more records (some with Wagner). By 1971. her solo hits began to hit the charts, including Jolene, which charted both nationally and abroad.
When she parted with Wagoner she composed the number that would become a timeless classic—I Will Always Love You. Besides being a chart topping single hit, it would later be used in at least two of her motion pictures: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, then later in The Bodyguard as sung by Whitney Houston. The royalties from this giant hit were large, but they would have been much less. At the time Elvis Presley wanted to record the song and many young beginner artists would have welcomed the deal. But Dolly was wary. She knew that whenever Elvis recorded a new number he would ask for a co-writing credit—and thus half future royalties. So Dolly declined the offer and thus retained full authorship—which has naturally earned her innumerable funds in royalties. In fact that hit and Jolene were reportedly written at the same time. In a 2019 interview she described finding some old cassette tapes containing both songs. (As many songwriters did, as she probably created she sang into a tape recorder.) “Buddy, that was a good night,” she told the interviewer.
Then as she continued to write and record in various genres, Dolly also began to appear more on television on variety programs such as with Cher and Carol Burnett. Then came her next film, Nine to Five where her co-stars were Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman. The theme that she wrote proved as popular as the movie. It actually originated from an on-set incident.
In a break during filming, Dolly was unconsciously tapping her long acrylic nails on a surface when she realized that the sound replicated the noise of numerous typewriters. And since the setting was a business office, it was just the effect that was required. The resulting single reached number one on the pop, adult contemporary, and country charts and also received an Academy Award nomination as “Best Song.”
Another top winner for Dolly, and fellow performers Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt was Trio a 1987 album that included classic rock numbers, as well as a cross section of numbers from other genres. This won another Grammy as a multi-performer production, and was nominated for a Grammy “Album of the Year.”
Meanwhile as Dolly continued numerous appearances on records, television and in other venues, she demonstrated an amazing business sense in other areas. She established the Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee as well as other entertainment venues in the area. Her dream of giving back to her community, was also evident in her many philanthropic ventures, particularly in the Tennessee area. These are often managed, through the Dollywood Foundation that arranges and manages, her efforts relief and educational programs.
Dolly’s buxom figure as part of her public image was also a great attention grabber and she continued to use it. One example was in the early days of her career when she rejected an offer from Playboy magazine to pose nude but did appear on the cover in a “Bunny” outfit. However, it was also publicity since the publication held her first mainstream interview. Another image booster came later when in 1996 a lamb was born, created by scientists using cells from a ewe’s mammary gland. It was dubbed Dolly and her comment was “Not baaaad.”
Occasionally she coped with a bit of excess weight, but she took a humorous approach. She wrote at one point, “I tried every diet in the book. I tried some that weren’t in the book, I tried eating the book. It tasted better than most of the diets.”
Her seemingly timeless youthful appearance has long been considered the result of plastic surgery – something that Dolly humorously promotes herself. In fact once when asked about future possible surgeries she said, “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll net it nipped, tucked or sucked.”
Though her public image and business life is widely known, Dolly maintains a quiet public life and in a world where celebrities might go through several spouses in their career, Dolly and her husband have been married for over 50 years. Yet though Carl Dean has long seemed an almost absent mysterious figure, he’s still a very important part of Dolly’s life.
Married in May, 1966, Dean for many years operated a Nashville asphalt road paving business, as he avoided publicity and rarely attended Dolly’s appearances. Actually, according to Dolly, he’s only seen her perform once, but though it might seem that they spend little time together, it’s because no one sees him in public. She added that he might spontaneously surprise her with a specially written poem. In May, 2016 Dolly and her husband renewed their wedding vows in commemoration of their 50th anniversary. “He’s always loved who I was, and I loved who he was, and we never tried to change each other,” Dolly has said and in 2011 she related “We’re very proud of our marriage. It’s the first for both or us. And the last.”
Her commercial success has not affected her buoyant approach to life. “I always count my blessings more than I count my money. I don’t work for money, never did.” she told an interviewer. She also has said, “I’m just a working girl. I never think of myself as a star because, as someone once said, ‘a star is nothing but a big ball of gas’ and I don’t want to be that.”
Even her troubles can’t hamper her success or attitude. As she tweeted one time in 2013: “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”
And a key to her early and continued success: “I had a gift of rhyme and a big imagination and that’s just how I started…and now I’m still a-goin!’”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.