Anyone who has been listening to popular music during the past fifty years or so has some impression of Dolly Parton. They may remember her as one of the feisty heroines of the movie Nine to Five and the song inspired by it. Or perhaps they remember her blue grass period or her recent recording “A Holly Dolly Christmas”. Parton’s career has been a long one and her music has won many awards, but her life has consisted of far more than movies and music.
Born in Eastern Tennessee in 1946, the fourth of twelve children, Parton grew up poor in a rural community in Tennessee. Few people would have predicted that she would have a long, successful career which would have a dramatic impact on all of Eastern Tennessee and on many young children around the world. But that’s exactly what has happened. Not only has Dolly Parton become one of the richest musicians in the world, according to Forbes magazine, but her work has changed lives in America and abroad.
Parton and her family lived on a small farm and her parents struggled to support their large family. Like most people in the region, they were active in their church and that is where Dolly started her musical career. She sang in church and soon began performing on local radio stations. She also composed songs, encouraged by her uncle who gave her the first real guitar she ever owned. At thirteen she appeared on Grand Ole Opry and met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to build her career.
Parton graduated from high school in 1964 and moved to Nashville the next day to start her career. She found success as a songwriter, often working with her uncle, Bill Owens. Her first recordings were of popular songs, but she soon moved to country music, which she preferred. From that time on, she found success writing and singing in several different genres.
Two years after her arrival in Nashville, Dolly Parton married Carl Thomas Dean. In 2016, the couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Although her husband remains in the background of her career and seldom appears at public events, the couple remain close and are important figures in the lives of their siblings and other relatives. They do not have children of their own.
The largest business venture that Parton started the Dollywood Company, which operates a theme park and several restaurants. The tourism brought by this venture has stimulated the economy of Eastern Tennessee and provided jobs for many residents.
Despite being such a successful businesswoman, Dolly Parton still retains her image as a glamourous entertainer. Although she is in her mid-70s, she is frank about the amount of time and effort she has spent on maintaining her spectacular appearance. She once told Larry King, “I look at myself like a show dog. I’ve got to keep her clipped and trimmed and in good shape.”
One of Dolly Parton’s most unusual ventures, and perhaps the one which will have the most lasting impact on people around the world is her Imagination Library organized by the Dollywood company. This Library started as a local Tennessee project to send each child enrolled in the program a free book every month from the time of birth until the age of five. It has grown and now includes groups in several countries.
Parton has said that she decided to provide books for children because her own father was illiterate and she realized what a difference that made in his life. The books sent to children are carefully chosen and include both classic children’s stories and current books in both English and Spanish.
It is impossible to sum up the life and career of Dolly Parton in one short blog post. The Wikipedia article about her provides an overwhelming amount of information. Someday, I am sure, a full biography will appear. Until that happens, we should all recognize, when we see her slim, attractive appearance on the screen, that we are looking at a powerful woman who has had an impact on many areas of American life.