Dolly Parton: The Untold Story Of The Country Music Icon

The term "national treasure" gets thrown around a decent amount, and it's safe to say that it comes with a bit of debate. Except, that is, in one case: Dolly Parton. Who, after all, could argue that the rags-to-riches singer with the big hair and the even bigger heart is anything but a national treasure? 

Start with her music, then consider her charitable giving and incredible selflessness: Her Imagination Library has — as of 2023 — given away more than 213 million books to children around the world. Anyone who still doubts, she'll charm. Even back in 1978, journalist Gerri Hirshey traveled with Parton for a bit, researching her book on women in rock, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." She hilariously wrote about being in the middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin, and being asked to go to Walmart for mascara. "After three days with Dolly, I felt like I was carrying the Olympic torch back to her impossibly frou-froued domain."

Parton is famous for not taking herself too seriously, and when Vanity Fair asked her what phrase she said too often, she went with, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap." But what about the lesser-known details about her? Like the fact that she always wished she had longer legs, that her favorite place to be is in her Jeep, driving around Tennessee, and that her idea of happiness is a loaded baked potato and a good book? Parton may put it all out there, but she holds a lot back, too.

She recalled being haunted by the spirit of her beloved baby brother

Dolly Parton comes from a famously massive family, and in her memoir, "Dolly," she wrote about how her parents would task the older children with caring for a specific younger child. "This helped to make us feel closer as a family," she recalled, and when her mother shared that she was pregnant with the child that would be "her" special sibling, Parton was over the moon. While her mother was pregnant, though, she was hospitalized with spinal meningitis. The family was told to prepare for the worst. While Parton's mother survived, her baby — named Larry — did not.

"I was inconsolable," Parton wrote. "I wouldn't leave Larry's grave. I would take a lantern up on the hill and sit there most of the night talking to him and crying."

Parton wrote that the grief eventually turned to acceptance, but she recalled a surreal experience shortly after Larry's heartbreaking death. She wrote about being cuddled up in bed with her siblings when they all heard someone come in through the front door, then move through the house. Everyone heard it, and although her mother feared it was death coming for another member of her family, not everyone agreed. "Some thought it might have been Larry's ghost, since his grave was right up on the hill," she wrote. "Whatever it was, we all sensed it. And nobody ever really had a true explanation."

Her appearance turned school into a nightmarish landscape of rumors and ridicule

Dolly Parton has always embraced her appearance, with her over-the-top devotion to big hair, heavy makeup, flashy clothes, and... other accessories. She wrote in her memoir, "Dolly," that she developed those accessories when she was just 12 years old — the same time she reached her adult height of 5-foot-2. She had already known that dressing up made her happy, but it didn't exactly make her a favorite in school. She wrote, "I was not well-liked in school... I had an unearned reputation for being a tramp."

It's no secret that kids are cruel, and she learned first-hand just how cruel they can be. She recalled going to school one day to find everyone avoiding her more than usual. Days went by before she learned there was a story going around that she had been sexually assaulted by a group of men in a nearby lumberyard, and she was horrified: "If it had been true, wouldn't I have been an innocent victim rather than someone to be shunned and looked down upon?"

Things weren't much better at home, particularly when it came to her grandfather, Reverend Jake Owens — or, to her, Grandpa Jake. She loved him dearly and even co-wrote a song about him ("Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man), but never forgot him telling her that she was going to hell for bleaching her hair. His name for her? "Jezebel."

The first time she was in NYC, she pulled a gun on someone

Dolly Parton sat down for an interview with "Playboy" in 1978 (via "Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters"), and amid answering the usual "Playboy"-esque questions, she told a terrifying story about her first trip to New York City. Parton, who was 21 years old at the time, and a friend decided they wanted to see what the big deal about X-rated movies was, so they headed into a seedy part of the city and slipped into an adult theater. "It looked okay for a few minutes, and all of a sudden, it got into the most gross things," she recalled. "I didn't know how to react and she didn't, either. ... So we ran out and we started runnin'..."

They were trying to flag down a cab when they were approached by several men who clearly thought they were sex workers and wouldn't take no for an answer. One grabbed Parton: "He kept pullin' at me, and I was getting furious and I was cussin' him, and I don't cuss that much," she recalled. "And I got my gun out of my pocketbook. I told the man, "If you put your hands on me one more time, I swear to God that I will shoot you.' And I would have." The men left, and while she said she currently loved the city, it took her a long time to feel comfortable there.

She's inspired by cemeteries

Dolly Parton told Vanity Fair that her favorite part of her career has always been writing songs, and every writer has their own way of finding inspiration. Parton's way is a little unexpected: She goes to cemeteries, and she's been fascinated by them for a long time. She spoke about it in a 1984 interview with ABC News, saying, "That's not a morbid thing. I love cemeteries because when I was growing up... people always took care of the [graveyards]. It's like a golf course, it's a very peaceful, quiet place to go, where nobody but weirdos like me really want to hang out. I don't go there just to hang out with the dead. The dead don't scare me, though — it's the living that's got me frightened!"

She went on to say that she spent a lot of time reading the tombstones and creating vibrant stories about what each person had been like in life. She imagines happy couples, big families, and stories about why some people are buried alone. Parton even shocked a Rolling Stone journalist preparing for a 1977 interview (via "Dolly on Dolly") by suggesting they hold the interview in a cemetery they happened to be driving by. It was quiet there, she explained, but it wasn't quiet on that particular day: Thanks to a lawn-mowing groundskeeper, they decided to go elsewhere.

She's still glad she never had children

Even though it's the 21st century, child-free women still tend to get bombarded with a ton of intrusive questions — and Dolly Parton is no exception. She'd just played Glastonbury in 2014 when an interview with The Guardian turned to the inevitable question, and Parton said that yes, she'd once wondered what her children might have been like, and she'd picked out names. (For a girl? Carla.) "Anyway, we talked about it, and we dreamed it, but it wasn't meant to be. Now that we're older? We're glad," she explained, saying that although she would have loved to be a mother, it would have meant putting her career on the back burner.

There was a little more to it, though, and although she doesn't talk about it much, the early 1980s were a difficult time for her. Health problems forced her to cancel a tour in 1982, when abdominal pain and severe bleeding sent her to the hospital. She eventually underwent a partial hysterectomy (via Closer Weekly).

She says that it was difficult, but in hindsight, she wouldn't change anything. In a 2019 interview with Today, she said that she was grateful that her career had allowed her to touch the lives of so many children, particularly through her Imagination Library. "God has a plan for everything," she said. "I think it probably was his plan for me not to have kids so everybody's kids could be mine. And they are now."

Dinner parties and reading habits

Questions like, "What albums would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island?" can yield some fascinating insights into someone's character, and in a 1970s-era "Playboy" interview (via "Dolly on Dolly"), Dolly Parton was asked a few questions along those lines. Her answers were equal parts surprising and funny.

When she was asked who she would want to be if she could be any person in history, she replied: "I think, maybe, Will Rogers. He reminds me of my own people and of myself."

Rogers was also on her list of people she'd want to invite to a dinner party. According to Parton, other invitees would have included "Beethoven. Bob Hope. Strother Martin. Festus, from 'Gunsmoke.'" She also had a menu in mind, and it sounds pretty amazing: In addition to Southern classics like cornbread and biscuits with meatloaf for the main, she added there'd be vanilla pudding for dessert and: "I'd have to fix Beethoven a chef's salad. I don't think he'd want all that grease." And as far as her favorite books, she said that although she didn't read much, she preferred books on self-improvement and, on the rare occasion, anything by Agatha Christie.

She's been candid about struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide

Dolly Parton might seem like the happiest person around, but depression is equal opportunity. In 2014, she sat down with the Mirror to talk about her upcoming tour, and said that in spite of appearances, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. "Depression runs in my family on both sides, and I have to be wary," she said. "It's usually brought on by something that's going on in the family and if there are problems, sometimes it's a lot for one little person to carry."

She got incredibly candid in a 1986 interview with Ladies' Home Journal (via "Dolly on Dolly"). She talked about one period in particular, when she dealt with health scares, experiences on the set of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" that left her in tears, family arguments, and what she described as "an affair of the heart" that left her deep in a months-long depression. 

When asked if she had ever contemplated suicide, she responded, "I got close once. ... I looked at [the gun] for a long time, wondering and saying to myself, 'Well now, this is where people get the idea of suicide, isn't it? Guns around the house and people sorrowing and all.'" She credits her dog, Popeye, as being there for her, saying that he was her "spiritual messenger from God." She added that "After that, my life changed in a positive way."

She was told — repeatedly — that her appearance would mean she'd never make it

Dolly Parton is the first to make jokes about her appearance, but when she does speak seriously about it, it's the sort of thing that will tug on anyone's heartstrings. She was on the WorkLife with Adam Grant podcast (via Today) when she revealed that she was going for a certain look — "a country girl's idea of glam" — and she'd always felt "I wasn't a natural beauty and, so, I just like to look the way I look. I'm so outgoing inside my personality, that I need the way I look to match all of that."

She's been candid, too, about how many people have tried to change her. The powers-that-be in the music industry always told her to tone it down a bit, saying that no one was ever going to believe she was a serious musician.

When she spoke with Playboy back in the 1970s, she explained that if she wanted to be a sex symbol, she'd dress extremely differently. She also explained her reasoning for not changing: "It's this: If I can't make it on my talent, then I don't want to do it. I have to look the way I choose to look, and this is what I've chose. It makes me different a little bit, and ain't that what we all want to do: be a little different? ... Life's boring enough, it makes you try to spice it up."

Someone once abandoned a baby at her house

It's no secret that fans can do some strange things to get the attention of their celebrity idols, and it's safe to say that Dolly Parton has had perhaps one of the strangest and most extreme encounters out there. She mentioned it in a 2011 interview with the Windy City Times, when she talked about how meeting people was one of her favorite parts of touring.

When she was asked about the most extreme thing she ever had happen with a fan, she said that the strangest happened early on in her career. "Jolene" had just become a hit when she came home one day to find a box in her driveway. In it was a baby and a note that read, "My name is Jolene, my momma has left me here and she wants you to have me."

Parton said, "Of course, we all freaked out!" They immediately called the authorities, answered questions about what happened, and handed the baby over. She said that although she thought about the baby often and wondered what happened to her, she never found out. "I don't think that person would ever even know about the way that went down," she said. "There was no way to track it, and I didn't want to. ... That was the wildest thing."

She was targeted by the KKK

The idea of Dolly Parton offending an entire group of people to the point where they feel it necessary to send threats sounds pretty unthinkable, but here we are. In a 2012 interview with "Nightline" (via ABC News) she talked about a variety of topics, including her long-standing and well-known support of the LGBTQ+ community. Her support so offended the Ku Klux Klan that she started getting threats. Parton, however, didn't back down.

"When it first started, there were people giving us threats, I still get threats," she said. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

For a little bit, it looked like the KKK was going to get their comeuppance in an epic way. USA Today reported that Rep. Jeremy Faison, previously steadfast in his belief that a statue of Confederate general and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest should stand as a reminder of the state's history, changed his mind after doing more research into Forrest's writings and his legacy. Although it was put forward that his likeness be replaced by a statue of Parton, she tweeted that although she was "honored and humbled" by the idea, she in no way wanted it to happen — not while she was alive, at least.

Her faith is a deeply held spirituality

Ever wonder about the secret to world peace and happiness? Dolly Parton just might have it. When Forbes asked her about her personal life philosophy, she replied that it was one that was deeply rooted in faith, spirituality, and her belief in God. "I take the gifts that God has given me, and expecting me to do something with, and I just try to find the good and the light in every person, rather than judging them by what they might be doing or how they might be acting."

She continued, saying that while she had formed her strong faith while she was a child, she knew that it wasn't for everyone. In fact, she wrote in her memoir, "Dolly," that it doesn't bother her in the least if someone doesn't believe — as long as they're a good person, they're good by her.

"While Christianity and its symbols are powerful parts of my own life, I am not one of those who believes that a person has to embrace them to be a decent and worthwhile human being," she wrote. "Spirituality is the most intimate part of a person's makeup, and it's strictly up to the individual to choose how to express it." She has known, after all, plenty of terrible people who wrap themselves in the shroud of religion, and makes it a point to take stock of people not by what they say they believe, but who they show they are.

Regrets? She has just one

It's a simple fact of life that no one gets through without at least a few regrets — even the rich and famous. When Forbes asked Dolly Parton about her regrets, she had a fascinating take on the moments that any mere mortal might consider a mistake or a misstep: "Well, I don't think it's healthy to go back and think about... regrets. ... I don't believe there are that many mistakes in this world. I think everything's a stepping stone and even if you make what is a so-called mistake in somebody else's eyes, to me, it's something you learn from."

She told Vanity Fair that there was one thing she did regret, though, and that it didn't so much involve a mistake she felt she made, but something she had to do to stay true to herself and her music. "I would have really loved to hear Elvis sing 'I Will Always Love You,' she said, and it almost happened. Why didn't it? She told W that Elvis' manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song if Elvis was going to sing it, and Parton just couldn't agree to those terms. "These are my songs," she said. "They're like my children."

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