She emerged from poverty in the Smoky Mountains, the first of her family to graduate high school. She dreamed of being a country music singer, but it was her songwriting that got her in the door. Over the course of more than forty years, she has successfully navigated countless styles of country music, ranging from bluegrass to Hollywood pop-country, remaining a popular and relevant recording artist through the countless sea changes that occurred in the industry around her.
Dolly Parton’s story begins in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, where she was the fourth of twelve children. She began writing songs before she had begun formal schooling, and would physically force her younger siblings to watch her performances. Her mother taught her the old mountain songs, with a penchant for those with tragic undertones. This was a big influence on Parton’s writing, particularly in the first decade of her recording career.
Her uncle, Bill Owens, was an early believer in her talent, and took ten year old Dolly to Knoxville to meet Cas Walker, owner a successful chain of grocery stores. He had a radio and television show that promoted the stores, and he had Parton sing jingles and entertain. She earned twenty dollars a week, and kept the gig while finishing her education.
When she was thirteen, Owens finagled studio time for Dolly in Louisiana, where she cut some sides for Goldband Records. She traveled with Owens to Nashville, with her recording of “Puppy Love” in tow, and hung around the back door of the Opry until she could meet Johnny Cash. She begged him to let her on the Opry, and he explained that to do so, another performer would have to give up their spot. Jimmy C. Newman graciously volunteered, and Cash introduced the teenager. She was only supposed to do one song, but she earned three encores.
Parton and Owens returned to Nashville frequently, and Parton’s songwriting caught the attention of Buddy Killen, who signed her briefly to a publishing contract. Mercury Records issued a single of Dolly singing one of her songs, “(It May Not Kill Me) But it’s Sure Gonna Hurt.” She also recorded a teenybopper record, “Don’t Drop Out,” which went nowhere. After becoming the first member of her family to graduate high school, Parton moved to Nashville the very next day.
She met her future husband at a laundromat the same day she arrived in town, but he was headed into the army. She wed Carl Dean two years later, when he returned from the service, and they’ve been together ever since. While she aspired to be a country singer, it was her songwriting that first earned her success on Music Row. She was signed to a writer’s deal with Combine Music, and she penned singles by Skeeter Davis (“Fuel to the Flame”) and Hank Williams Jr. (“I’m in No Condition”). When Bill Phillips took her song “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” to #6, she earned a record deal of her own, signing with Monument.
Her first single, the clever Curly Putman song “Dumb Blonde,” went to #24, and she penned her next hit, the top twenty “Something Fishy.” Her debut set was dubbed Hello, I’m Dolly, and Monument released it in 1967. When Porter Wagoner needed a female singer to replace Norma Jean on his television and touring show, he chose Dolly, and was instrumental in having her switch from Monument to RCA Records.
Over the next few years, she would have many big hit duets with Wagoner, starting right away with their first single, “The Last Thing on My Mind,” at the end of 1967. Parton penned quite a few of them, including “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark,” “Yours Love,” “Tomorrow is Forever” and “Lost Forever in Your Kiss.” Parton won her first industry awards with Porter, as the CMA named them Vocal Group in 1968, and then Vocal Duo in 1970 and 1971.
But Parton was also pursuing her solo career, and it was on her solo records that she was fully blossoming as a writer who did not mince words or shy away from uncomfortable subjects. Her first RCA single, “Just Because I’m a Woman,” was from the perspective of a woman just married, and her new husband is angry that she is not a virgin. She makes clear, “I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand. My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman. So when you look at me, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just think of all the shame you might have brought somebody else.”
A full two years before Loretta Lynn’s celebrated “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Parton documented the poverty she grew up in on her 1968 single, “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad).” She was a mountain girl turned prostitute on her classic “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.” On her best early track, “Down From Dover,” she was an outcast for getting pregnant. Wagoner insisted the song was too depressing to be a single, so he pushed RCA to release “Daddy, Come and Get Me” instead, even though that song had a girl institutionalized by her roving husband.
Her first major solo hit ended up being a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues”, but she followed it up in 1971 with her self-penned hit, “Joshua”, which was her first #1 single. Later that year, she released her signature ballad, “Coat of Many Colors”, which poetically recounted a childhood memory of her mother sewing a coat from her out of donated rags. It remains Parton’s favorite song she’s ever written.
Over the next few years, Parton was a stunningly prolific writer, penning several songs which went on to become country classics, like “Jolene,” “The Bargain Store,” “Love is Like a Butterfly,” “The Seeker” and “”Please Don’t Stop Loving Me.” That last song became her only #1 hit with Porter Wagoner, and when she left his show after seven years, she penned the bittersweet “I Will Always Love You,” which would become her most well-known composition.
Parton’s success as a writer was not limited to her solo and duet hits. Linda Ronstadt was the first to cover “I Will Always Love You,” including it on her Prisoner in Disguise album in 1975. Olivia Newton-John topped the pop charts in several countries with her cover of “Jolene.” Merle Haggard had a #1 hit with Parton’s “Kentucky Gambler” in early 1975, and over the next few years, Emmylou Harris would score with “To Daddy” and Waylon Jennings with “Waltz Me to Heaven,” while Parton herself racked up one self-written hit after another.
Parton was named CMA’s Female Vocalist in 1975 and 1976, but was frustrated by the small scale of her success. “Jolene” had been her biggest song up until that point, and the single had sold 60,000 copies. She looked over to the pop chart and saw that big hits over there sold in the hundreds of thousands. She saw no reason why she should be held back from that. She hooked up with an L.A. manager and booking company, and began recording more pop-flavored material.
Her personality was a perfect fit for The Tonight Show, where she provided Johnny Carson with several classic moments and quite a bit of material, as his jokes about her ample bosom became staples of the show. Her first crossover album, New Harvest…First Gathering got the ball rolling, with the stunning gospel ballad “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” as the hit single from the set. But Parton’s popularity exploded with her next album, Here You Come Again.
The title track was written by pop songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Well, and it not only topped the country chart for five weeks, it crossed over to pop, selling a million copies in the process. The album of the same name went platinum and won Parton her first Grammy. She wrote the album’s other two big hits, “It’s all Wrong, But it’s all Right” and “Two Doors Down,” both written on the same night during a caffeine-induced writing binge.
Before the album broke through on such a big scale, Parton had been on the receiving end of a storm of criticism for allegedly leaving country music, to which she replied, “I’m not leaving country music. I’m taking it with me.” By 1978, the country music industry was back on her side, naming her Entertainer of the Year at both the ACMs and the CMAs. Her next three albums were hits at both country and pop radio, and Parton had her own short-lived variety show.
Then a chance meeting on a plane with Jane Fonda led to her first movie role, playing Doralee in 9 to 5. The movie was a smash, and led to one of her biggest singles as well. Parton was bored on the movie set, so she wrote “9 to 5” to the beat of her clicking fingernails. Not only did the song top the country charts, it became her first #1 pop hit, winning her two Grammys and earning her first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
Parton’s success continued unabated, with her big hits over the next few years including a re-recording of “I Will Always Love You” for her second film, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Parton became the first country artist in history to go to #1 with different versions of the same song. Her 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream”, was another massive hit, selling more than two million copies and topping the pop and country singles charts.
By the time she left RCA in 1985, she’d enjoyed twenty #1 hits. She was frustrated, though, with the label’s lack of promotion and jumped ship for Columbia Records. Her first release for the label, Rainbow, sank quietly, but for good reason. It was completely overshadowed by the success of Trio, her collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt that same year. The album sold platinum and won them a slew of awards. Parton sang lead on one of the set’s four big hits, with “Wildflowers” being her most traditional hit in ages.
Parton made a conscious effort to record material with less of a pop flavor, and the result was a trio of top-selling albums for Sony, White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies and Slow Dancing With the Moon, the latter two being her first platinum solo albums since the late seventies. She continued to have radio hits, including three #1 singles. She also starred in network variety show and in several more films on the big and small screen, the most famous being her supporting role in Steel Magnolias.
Parton’s songwriting received renewed attention when Whitney Houston turned “I Will Always Love You” into an international pop smash, resulting in Parton being honored with BMI’s Most Performed Song of the Year award. Despite the pop success, Parton was turning increasingly to her roots. She found great success with Honky Tonk Angels, an album recorded with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, and she recorded a collection of mountain songs on Heartsongs: Live From Home.
In 1999, Parton left the major labels behind and signed with Sugar Hill. She’d heard that bluegrass fans had been polled regarding which artist they’d most want to see record a bluegrass album, and she was on the top of the list. The result was The Grass is Blue, which won her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and was named Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
That fall, Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of the youngest living inductees in history. She shifted from bluegrass to mountain soul on her 2001 set Little Sparrow, which won her another Grammy for her rendition of Collective Soul’s “Shine.” To promote her next set, Halos and Horns, Parton toured for the first time in more than a decade, playing to sold-out crowds everywhere she went.
Recent years brought her another Oscar nomination, for her theme song to the movie Transamerica, “Travelin’ Thru.” Parton’s songs were used on country night during this year’s season of American Idol, where Parton served as a guest mentor. Her newest album, Backwoods Barbie, was her highest-charting since her 1991 chart-topping set Eagle When She Flies. The title cut is one of several songs she’s written for the Broadway production of 9 to 5, which will be hitting the Great White Way in 2009.
Over the course of country music history, there have been women who have made their name through their songwriting talents, like Cindy Walker and Matraca Berg. There have been women who have connected with roots and bluegrass music, like Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent. There have been women who have risen to great success from their mountain backgrounds, like Loretta Lynn and Patty Loveless. There have been women who have become pop phenomenons, like Shania Twain and Anne Murray. There have been women who have become multimedia stars of stage and screen, like Reba McEntire and Barbara Mandrell.
But there has never been a woman who has done all of the above, and done it well, like Dolly Parton has. The scale and scope of Parton’s success is completely unprecedented in country music, and given the unique combination of her talents and her experiences, may be unreplicable. She represents both the rich heritage and limitless possibilities of women in country music, with her contributions to American popular culture continuing unabated in her fifth decade on the public stage.
Country music can lay claim to many tremendous female artists. Dolly Parton is the greatest.
- “Just Because I’m a Woman,” 1968
- “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” 1969
- “Just Someone I Used to Know” (with Porter Wagoner), 1969
- “Coat of Many Colors,” 1971
- “Jolene,” 1973
- “I Will Always Love You,” 1974
- “The Bargain Store,” 1975
- “Here You Come Again,” 1977
- “9 to 5,” 1980
- “Islands in the Stream” (with Kenny Rogers), 1983
- “Shine,” 2001
- Joshua (1971)
- Coat of Many Colors (1971)
- My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973)
- Jolene (1974)
- New Harvest…First Gathering (1977)
- Here You Come Again (1977)
- 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (1980)
- Trio (1987)
- Honky Tonk Angels (1993)
- Heartsongs: Live From Home (1994)
- The Grass is Blue (1999)
- Little Sparrow (2001)
- ACM Entertainer, 1978
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1981
- ACM Single (“Islands in the Stream”), 1984
- ACM Top Vocal Duet (Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton), 1984
- ACM Album (Trio), 1988
- ACM Video (“When I Get Where I’m Going”), 2006
- ACM Vocal Event (“When I Get Where I’m Going”), 2006
- CMA Vocal Group (Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton), 1968
- CMA Vocal Duo (Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton), 1970 & 1971
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1975 & 1976
- CMA Entertainer, 1978
- CMA Vocal Event (Trio), 1988
- CMA Vocal Event (“I Will Always Love You”), 1996
- CMA Musical Event (“When I Get Where I’m Going”), 2006
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (Here You Come Again), 1979
- Grammy: Best Country Song (“9 to 5”), 1982
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“9 to 5”), 1982
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (Trio), 1988
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Collaboration with Vocals (“After the Gold Rush”), 2000
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Album (The Grass is Blue), 2001
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Shine”), 2002
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1999