In today’s five-minutes-of-fame culture, it’s difficult to imagine many artists maintaining their careers and reputation for the best part of 60 years. Six decades is a long time – time enough to evolve, change and mature as a musician. To live a life, tell the story and become an icon.
Which is exactly what Dolly did.
Since she burst onto the Nashville music scene with her debut full-length album, Hello I’m Dolly, the Queen of Country has walked her own path, emerging the other side as one of the world’s best-loved and most influential music stars.
Born to poverty and often unfairly ridiculed and criticised for her appearance, Dolly has weathered more than one storm, earning the respect of fans and demonstrating a fierce intelligence, quick-wittedness and deep compassion for those around her. In the process, she’s written and recorded some of the most recognisable country hits of the last century and enjoyed enormous crossover success.
As with any 75-year story, Dolly’s is a complex roller-coaster that is unavoidably muddled and combined with the myths that have proliferated around the singer. Here, we take a brief look at the Dolly Parton story, giving you an insight into what has made her one of the USA’s most enduring artists.
“I’ll always count my blessings quicker and more often than I count my money”
The Great Smoky Mountains are steeped in folklore. Situated at the southern end of Appalachia, a rugged and mountainous region famed for a modern mythology that centres on moonshiners, clan feuds and the pioneer spirit, the Smokies have a long and strong association with traditional US music forms. Be it bluegrass, gospel, country, blues or church hymns, it has a home in the Smoky Mountains.
There can be no denying the influence that Appalachian country and folk has had beyond the confines of the mountains, either. Bob Dylan drew lyrical inspiration from traditional Appalachian folk songs, Eric Clapton considered Appalachian singer Roscoe Holcomb one of his favourite musicians, and Harry Smith compiled the influential Anthology of American Folk Music from lost recordings of Appalachian musicians.
However, the region’s biggest contribution to US music has to be the wonderful Dolly Parton.
Born on the 19th January 1946, in Pittman Center, Tennessee, Dolly was the fourth child of twelve, all of whom would arrive before their mother’s 35th birthday. Living in a one-room cabin beside the Little Pigeon River, the family, like many in Appalachia, were impoverished. Legend has it that they had so little, that Dolly’s father paid the doctor a bag of cornmeal to help deliver her.
This early poverty would condition Dolly’s songwriting, career and outlook on life. Though it may be a step too far to say that she celebrated it, she certainly learnt from it and has often expressed gratitude for the things it taught her.
“Walkin’ home from church on a Sunday with the one ya’ love / Just laughin’, talkin’, making future plans”
While Dolly’s father was an illiterate but canny sharecropper who always had an extra earner on the side, it was her mother’s half of the family that introduced her to music. Often unwell, Parton’s mother would nevertheless keep the children occupied with the region’s captivating folklore, murder ballads and country standards, developing the future star’s ear for storytelling.
The church also played an important role in Dolly’s earliest musical experiences. Her maternal grandfather was a pentecostal preacher who had Parton perform in front of the congregation at the tender age of six. At seven, she began learning the guitar on a homemade instrument and at eight, her uncle bought her first real guitar.
After this, she began taking regular steps towards a career in music. She appeared on The Cas Walker Show and Knoxville radio stations aged eight. At 13, she recorded her first single, Puppy Love, and the same year she also met Johnny Cash at the most iconic of country institutions, the Grand Ole Opry.
So determined was the young Dolly, that she left home the day after she graduated and went to live in the capital of the country, Nashville, Tennessee.
“Everybody’s life is a soap opera, everybody’s life is a country-western song, depends on who’s writing it.”
Dolly spent the first few years in Nashville establishing her reputation as a songwriter. Having arrived in 1964, by 1967 she’d had her songs recorded by icons including Hank Williams Jr., Skeeter Davis and Kitty Wells.
Parton is also believed to have met her husband-to-be, Carl Thomas Dean, on her first day in Nashville. The couple would marry in 1966, in a small chapel in Georgia, with just Dolly’s mother in attendance. Though Carl is notoriously publicity-shy and has only seen Dolly perform once, the singer has often referred to their relationship in her lyrics, most notably in Jolene – a song about a bank teller who showed a little too much interest in Carl.
After several years honing her craft, Dolly was eventually signed to Monument Records. Originally marketed as a bubblegum pop act, Dolly had to convince the record label chiefs that she had a suitable voice before they would release her first country single, Dumb Blonde. For a song that went on to define the public perception of Parton for decades to come, it’s interesting to note that this was one of her only early hits that she didn’t write herself.
“Hello, I’m Dolly”
Dolly’s breakthrough moment came in 1967, when she released her first, full country album, Hello, I’m Dolly. Peaking at number 11 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart, the album was received warmly by both fans and the Nashville country establishment and brought her to the attention of one of the biggest stars on the scene, Porter Wagoner.
Porter presented an immensely popular syndicated TV show, The Porter Wagoner Show. For many years, he’d sang alongside Norma Jean, who had registered chart hits and developed a loyal following amongst country fans.
When Norma left the show to marry her partner, Porter asked Dolly to step in as her replacement. Despite the fans’ initial coldness to Dolly – which was due to the loyalty viewers displayed to Norma Jean – Parton and Porter’s professional partnership would last the best part of eight years, resulting in numerous top ten hits.
However, during this period, Dolly’s solo output was continuously ignored and overshadowed by her duets with Porter. While both artists desired Dolly to achieve individual success and Porter even had a financial stake in her solo career, it wasn’t until 1972 that she managed her first number-one single, Joshua. After this, the hits kept on coming, with Coat of Many Colours, Touch Your Woman and My Tennessee Home all charting between ‘72 and ‘74.
“If I should stay / Well, I would only be in your way / And so I’ll go, and yet I know / That I’ll think of you each step of my way”
It wasn’t until the release of Jolene, which gave Dolly her first taste of international success, that Parton decided to fulfil her dream of becoming a solo artist. Over the years, the Porter-Parton partnership had developed from a professional relationship to a loving friendship and Porter was distraught to hear of Dolly’s departure. So distraught, in fact, that he refused to let her leave.
In response, Dolly went home and wrote one of her most well-known songs, I Will Always Love You. While the Whitney Houston cover may have convinced you that this was a song about the loss of a lover, Dolly actually wrote it about the breakdown of her professional relationship with Porter. Performing it for him the next day was enough to win Porter around and he gave her his blessing and allowed her to move on.
At just 28 years of age, with so much already behind her, Dolly was about to embark on the next stage of a sensational career.
“Tumble outta bed / And I stumble to the kitchen / Pour myself a cup of ambition”
The decade between 1976 and 1986 was the period in which Dolly transitioned from the country music scene to national pop stardom. In large part, this was a conscious decision, with Parton releasing the pop-heavy New Harvest… First Gathering in 1977 and hiring renowned pop producer Gary Klein to work on its follow-up, Here You Come Again.
Success in both pop and country charts continued and a steady stream of big-name pop acts began to release covers of Dolly’s music. Television appearances also became more regular, with spots on a Cher TV special, a Barbara Walters Special and a co-hosting gig with Carol Burnett on Carol and Dolly in Nashville.
In the early ‘80s, Dolly cemented her position as one of the world’s most popular country artists with a slew of chart-topping international hits, including 9 to 5, the Kenny Rogers duet Islands in the Stream and Tennessee Homesick Blues.
Assured of her mainstream appeal and having successfully escaped the confines of the country music scene, Dolly was approaching a point in her career in which anything was possible.
“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one”
As the ‘80s neared their end, Dolly returned to her bluegrass roots and worked alongside Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt to record Trio. The album garnered critical acclaim and topped the charts, providing Parton with one of her greatest successes just before the US music scene shifted and the contemporary country scene arrived, with younger artists replacing many of Nashville’s older faces.
At roughly the same time, Parton invested in a small theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Displaying a knack for intelligent business deals and a desire to help the area in which she was raised, Parton became increasingly involved with the project. In 1986, the park was reopened as Dollywood and featured rides, attractions and demonstrations of traditional Appalachian crafts. The park was a resounding success. Today, it employs around 4,000 people and is the largest employer in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metro area.
The ‘90s got off to a fantastic start for Dolly, with Whitney Houston rerecording I Will Always Love You and turning it into a global hit. However, Parton’s own material received little attention during this period, despite its continued quality. Having returned to bluegrass and country, Dolly found herself recording music that she valued but that was somewhat out of step with contemporary tastes.
“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”
If the ‘90s can be considered a slight lull in Dolly’s career, things began to pick back up in the noughties. Already an LGBTQ icon due to her support for gay rights and public backing of HIV/Aids groups, Dolly wrote Travelin’ Thru for TransAmerica – a feature film about a trans woman travelling across the USA. The song won her an Academy Award nomination and cemented her position as a popular ally of marginalised groups.
Over the next few years, Dolly dueted with many of her old friends, continued releasing successful material and was nominated for several awards. However, the crowning moment of her career and the instant at which she passed from country star to global icon came in 2014, with a performance in Glastonbury Festival’s legend slot. Playing in front of 180,000 people, she wowed the crowd with hit after hit, demonstrating just how powerful a back catalogue consisting of 60-years of chart-topping country magic can be.
“You always want your people to be proud of what you have accomplished”
Recent years have seen critics reappraise Dolly’s contribution to popular culture in a wider sense, too. Parton’s own approach to feminism has been explored at length, the way she was treated (and often still is) by TV hosts and pundits has been questioned, and her work outside of music has also received considerable focus.
From part-funding the Moderna COVID vaccine to running her own book charity, Parton has always looked beyond herself and honoured her humble origins by helping those less fortunate. Though her music will always shine, it’s perhaps these honest, caring and altruistic elements of her character that have helped solidify her status as a pop-culture icon.
What do you think?
Take a look through our collection of Dolly Parton prints, prints and images to find the perfect photo for your home. If you’d like to find out more about the Dolly Parton story, you can also check out NPR’s excellent podcast series, Dolly Parton’s America.