“Dolly Parton came from the mountains of Tennessee. And she brought them with her.”
That’s one of my favorite (and Dolly’s too) in the countless digs taken by the singer and scores of others over the years on the breadth of Dolly Parton’s famous figure. Dolly wears the Smoky Mountains not just on her chest, but in her heart as well. Even as she became one of the biggest stars in the world in the 1980s , and a pop culture icon, she has always remained a grounded, approachable country girl. Recent years have seen her go back to her musical roots with a stunning trilogy of bluegrass albums, but not before she broke more chart and sales records than I can list here as one of the most consistent and best-selling mainstream country and pop stars of her generation.
Born Dolly Rebecca Parton, the fourth of twelve children to Avie and Robert Parton, on January 19, 1946, the young Dolly picked up her musical ambitions at an early age. She began singing to a yard full of chickens and siblings by age 4, when she also began writing her first melodies and rhymes. By age 9, she was appearing on a local Knoxville variety radio show, and by 13, had recorded her first single for the small Goldband Records, titled “Puppy Love”. That record led to her first Opry appearance in 1959. It would be another 5 years, following her high school graduation, before Dolly went to Nashville full-time to pursue her dreams. There, she was signed to Fred Foster’s Monument label, primarily as a pop singer. After having success as a songwriter on the country charts with “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame” – both top 10 hits – Foster decided to pitch her to the country market. Her first country singles didn’t blaze up the charts, but did get Music Row to talking about the curvaceous blonde with the bubbly personality and distinctive voice.
Through those first singles, Dolly caught the attention of country star Porter Wagoner, who at the time had his own syndicated network television show. She joined the cast of The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967, where she earned her first taste of national recognition. It was also through Porter that Dolly signed to RCA Records, her label home for the next 17 years. By 1970, Dolly had scored 6 consecutive top 10 hits as Porter’s new duet partner, but was just beginning to blossom on her own. A cover of Jimmie Rodger’s “Mule Skinner Blues” became her first solo top 10 that year, before she hit pay dirt with her own composition, “Joshua” going all the way to the top. From there, Dolly began a run of hit singles that would continue for the next two decades. But in 1974, she made the decision to exit Wagoner’s show, leaving the host more than disgruntled at her departure. Wagoner later sued Parton for a sum of approximately $1 million. In the midst of her leaving, Dolly penned one of the most hauntingly beautiful – and most successful – love songs of our time to tell Porter how she felt. “I Will Always Love You” has since hit the top spot on the country charts twice for Parton, and was the most-played pop song of 1993, thanks to Whitney Houston’s recording.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s, Dolly continued to churn out hits. In 1977, she changed management teams and set her sights on the bright lights of Hollywood and the recognition that comes with crossover hits. True to her word, her first attempt at crossing over, the timeless “Here You Come Again” went to #3 on the pop charts and held a lock on the country top spot for a month. The album it came from also became Dolly’s first platinum album, but she was far from finished with million-sellers or the pop charts. She racked up 2 more top 40 pop hits as the 1970s became the ’80s, before releasing the biggest hit of her career so far with the title track to her first motion picture. “9 to 5” hit #1 all across the board, and also earned Dolly her first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (she would repeat this nomination in 2006, though she lost both times).
As the 1980s dawned, Dolly Parton was a household name, thanks in no small part to countless mentions on late night talk shows like Johnny Carson, where during one appearance the late night king opined “I’d give a year’s pay to peek under that sweater” to an absolutely giddy Parton in the guest chair. Following her co-starring role in 9 to 5, alongside the incomparable Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, she would star with Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982, with Sylvester Stallone in the universally panned Rhinestone in 1984, and then with a host of strong female leads like Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Shirley MacLaine in 1989’s now-classic Steel Magnolias. During this period, Dolly’s chart success became more spotty, but she was still racking up hits throughout the decade, and ended the ’80s one a strong note with her best album in ages, and a pair of #1 hits.
Relegated to the status of elder statesman by the ’90s boom, Dolly would continue releasing new music, and charted another chart-topper in 1992, in a duet with Ricky Van Shelton. She continued to regularly release new music, though radio was becoming less and less interested in her singles. A 1998 album of contemporary country sounds failed to chart any singles, and Dolly took a sabbatical from contemporary country for nearly a decade afterwards, turning her attention to bluegrass and remakes of patriotic songs as well as standards. She returned to mainstream country in 2008 with the much-heralded Backwoods Barbie, though still didn’t garner much love from country radio. A 2006 “duet” with Brad Paisley, where Parton’s vocals are limited to high-in-the-mix harmonies, earned her the final #1 of her career so far. “When I Get Where I’m Goin'” became the 25th chart-topper of her career, a record at the time, and she is now tied with Reba McEntire as the female artist with the most career #1’s.
Building more than just a multimedia empire with her music and movies, Dolly has branched out in more venues than just about anyone else in show business. In 1985, she opened her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN. Now in its 26th season, the park continues to grow and sees more than 2 million visitors annually. She has also created the Imagination Library, which provides books to children from birth to age 5, in an effort to kickstart in them a love of reading the printed word.
Still busier than ever, Dolly recently wrote the music for a Broadway adaption of 9 to 5, which earned her first Tony nominations, and has just released her first new album in 3 years. We’ll be looking over the many aspects of her storied career throughout July. So keep reading as we explore the life and times of country music’s most beloved and most colorful character.