Dolly Rebecca Parton is the fourth of twelve children born to a “dirt poor” tobacco farmer, Robert, and his wife, Avie Lee.
Her siblings are Willadeene Parton (a poet), David Parton, Denver Parton, Bobby Parton, Stella Parton (singer, actress and entertainer), Cassie Parton, Larry Parton (died shortly after birth), Randy Parton (singer and actor, he appeared in ‘Rhinestone’ (1984) with Dolly), Rachel Dennison (actress, she reprised Dolly’s role as Doralee Brooks in the ‘Nine to Five’ television series), and twins Floyd Parton (a songwriter) and Freida Parton.
The family grew up in a one-room cabin on a run-down farm in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. With both their parents belonging to a Pentecostal church, the Parton children found music to be a large part of their experience of religion.
In 1959, age 12, Parton made her television debut on Knoxville TV and in 1960, age 13, made her recording debut with a small label and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. She already knew that she wanted to make a career in country singing but needed to finish school first.
After graduating from high school in Servier County in 1964, Parton immediately moved to Nashville where she believed she had a better chance of starting her career. It was on her first day here that she met and fell in love with Carl Dean, who ran an asphalt-paving business. They were married on 30 May 1966 and are still together, after forty years, but have no children. Parton experienced an allergic reaction to birth control pills when she was younger, making her unable to have her own children. Her husband dislikes publicity and very rarely accompanies her to events.
Parton wrote some hit songs for Skeeter Davis and Hank Williams Jr. and then in late 1965, signed with Monument Records as a pop singer. She only earned one national pop chart single, ‘Happy, Happy Birthday Baby’, and as soon as Monument allowed Parton to sing country songs, she began to go up in the charts.
She released her debut album ‘Hello, I’m Dolly’ in 1967, the year that Porter Wagoner noticed the young 21-year-old Parton’s singing and invited her to join his weekly country music programme, ‘The Porter Wagoner Show’. Their first single together, ‘The Last Thing on my Mind’, made it onto the top ten of the country charts and they knew they were onto a good thing. Parton stayed with the show for seven years, gaining wide exposure and fame, singing duets with Wagoner and appearing with his group at the Grand Ole Opry. They toured the country, sold records and were well received.
Before long, Parton’s fame began to supersede Wagoner’s and when her single ‘Joshua’ (1970) reached No.1, she decided to start doings things on her own. She continued recording duets with Wagoner but finally left him, becoming a fully-fledged solo artist, in 1974 when she released ‘I Will Always Love You’ and it shot to No.1 on the country charts. It certainly was the right decision and Parton swiftly gained popularity as both a singer and a songwriter, winning numerous Country Music Association awards, in 1968, 1970, 1971, 1975 and 1976.
She found commercial success as a pop singer too, when the title track of her album ‘Here You Come Again’ (1977) became her first top ten single in the pop charts. The same track also brought her first Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. In fact, Parton specifically aimed her albums at both the country and the pop market, and often had singles on both charts simultaneously.
By the mid-1970s, further expanding her audience base, she was wisely turning her talents to television. She proved to be a natural and was often in talk shows and on TV specials. In 1976, she got her own variety show, simply titled ‘Dolly’. It achieved high ratings but managed to last only one season, with Parton negotiating out of her contract, citing stress to her vocal cords.
Parton’s big screen debut was astoundingly successful. She played a brassy Southern woman, Doralee Rhodes, in ‘Nine to Five’ (1980) opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. She received Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture Actress: Musical/Comedy and for New Star in a Motion Picture: Female. The title track she had written, earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song: Motion Picture. The title track won two Grammy awards for Best Country Song and for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. It was No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.78 on American Film Institute’s ‘100 years, 100 Songs’. In both 1981 and 1982, Motion Picture Herald named Parton their Top Female Box Office Star.
She went on to star in musical comedies, ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ (1982) with Burt Reynolds, receiving another Golden Globe nomination, and with Sylvester Stallone in ‘Rhinestone’ (1984), receiving accolades for her song ‘Tennessee Homesick Blues’. In 1988, Parton won a Grammy award for Best Country Performance Duo or Group with Vocals for her album ‘Trio’ (1987), recorded with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The following year she played the role of Truvy Jones, alongside Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts, in the highly acclaimed and unforgettable film ‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989).
Throughout the 1990s, other than ‘Straight Talk’ (1992), opposite James Woods (her last lead role in a film), and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ (1993), a feature adaptation of the classic television show, Parton worked mainly in television. In the mid-1990s, finding her new songs less well received on the country charts, she shifted from country to bluegrass music and released the critically acclaimed, Grammy award winning albums ‘The Grass is Blue’ (1999) and ‘Little Sparrow’ (2001). ‘Halos & Horns’ (2002) included Parton’s bluegrass version of the Led Zeppelin classic ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
She has also been involved in providing voice work, often playing herself, for animated television series such as ‘Alvin & the Chipmunks’ (1987), ‘The Magic School Bus’ (1994) and ‘The Simpsons’ (1999). Parton continues to receive acclaim for her work and, in 2000, was awarded her fifth Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. Her music has featured prolifically in other films and been covered by other artists, such as Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston, Leann Rimes, Melissa Etheridge, Shania Twain, Sinead O’Connor and Norah Jones. Perhaps the songs that stand out most in people’s minds are ‘Coat of Many Colours’ (1971), ‘Jolene’ (1974) and ‘I Will Always Love You’ (1974).
‘Travellin’ Thru’’ from the soundtrack of ‘Transamerica’, filmed in 2005, brought Parton her second Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. It also won the Best Original Song award at the Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards 2005 and was nominated for Best Original Song by the Foreign Press for the Golden Globes, as well as Best Song by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. The album ‘Those Were the Days’ (2005) is Parton’s tribute to the hits from the folk/rock era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It includes the likes of ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.
Besides all her musical finesse and acting talent, Parton is a shrewd businesswoman and heads Dolly Parton Enterprises, a $100 million media empire. She is the owner, founder and namesake of ‘Dollywood’, a popular tourist attraction theme park in Pigeon Forge, in the Smokey Mountain area, Tennessee, which also runs a dinner show called ‘Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede’. In 1991, she purchased her Sevierville hometown radio stations, WSEV 930 AM and WDLY 105.5 FM. The latter was billed as ‘Dolly’s station’ and was broadcast every operating day from ‘Radio Square’, a small section of ‘Dollywood’ dedicated to the radio broadcast.
She sold both stations in 2000, stating that her and her partners had built up the audiences but could not take the stations to the next level. She co-owns Sandollar Productions, a highly successful television and film production company, producing the likes of the ‘Fox TV Show’, ‘Babes’, ‘Sabrina’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, amongst many others.
Parton has achieved so many awards and been given much recognition for her contributions throughout her long and illustrious career. These include being elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, and being ranked No.4 in the ‘40 Greatest Women in Country Music’. In an all-time record for a female artist, Parton has watched no less than 25 of her songs go to No.1 on the billboard country charts. Her duet ‘Islands in the Stream’ with Kenny Rogers was rated No.1 on CMT ‘100 Greatest Country Duets of All Time’, and CMT ranked her 4th in their list of the ‘20 Sexiest Woman in Country Music’.
In 1990, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Carson-Newman College. In 1993, she was given the very first ‘Country Music Honours Award’ by the Country Music Association and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. To date, she is the only recipient of this tribute. She was ranked #34 on VH1’s Greatest Women of Rock & Roll. In 2001, she was inducted into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her work in helping to preserve the bald eagle at her ‘Dollywood’ sanctuary earned her the 2003 Partnership Award from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2005, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honour given by the US government for excellence in the arts. She became the first non-political recipient of the Lindy Boggs Award from The Stennis Centre for Public Service in 2006. These are but a few of the many, the list is amazingly long…
She may be petite but her talent, her drive and her sheer love of life is enormous. In 2006, Parton wrote the score for a Broadway production of ‘Nine to Five’, as well as a children’s book, ‘I am a Rainbow’. This is one sassy lady, with a heart of gold, who is showing no signs of slowing down, even she has every right to start taking it easy. In her own words: "My music is what took me everywhere I've been and everywhere I will go. It's my greatest love. I can't abandon it. I'll always keep making records."
In 2008, Parton released the album ‘Backwoods Barbie’, which provided her highest ever all-genre Billboard 200 chart position, debuting at number seventeen in the chart.
Parton was saddened by the death of her close friend Michael Jackson in 2009 and made a video tribute to the singer a few days later. Parton praised the King of Pop for his musical abilities and sweet nature, saying she "always thought he had the soul of an angel".
Later that year, she released a four-disc album featuring 99 songs recorded throughout her long career.
In 2011, Parton announced that she had recorded a new album entitled ‘Better Day’. The album is to be supported by the Better Day World Tour, which began on 17 July 2011. She released her latest album 'Blue Smoke' in 2014 and accompanied it with a world tour.
In an interview in March 2011, Parton made it clear that she has no plans to retire from showbiz anytime soon, saying she would only give up performing if she or her husband fell ill.