The tragic real-life story of Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is a country music legend and an American institution. She's also a quadruple threat. She sings, writes, acts, and directs, and she's that rare celebrity who is simply impossible not to love. She's Betty White in rhinestones, Bob Hope in a 40DD bra. (Incidentally, according to E! Online, Parton's most famous assets are insured for $600,000. Not quite J. Lo. booty numbers, but still.) 

Like many of the characters she's portrayed on the big and small screen over the years, Dolly Parton is whip-smart, incredibly funny, and pretty well self-made. She escaped a really rough start in life by the power of her pen and the off-the-charts wattage of her dimpled smile. One thing is for sure — Dolly Parton has encountered a number of challenges and tragedies in her full life, but the country legend has proven over and over again that she's more than capable of healing herself.

Dolly Parton's good old (bad old) days

Dolly Parton was born in 1946 in Locust Ridge, Tennessee in a one-room cabin, the fourth child of an illiterate sharecropper and a housewife who birthed 12 kids before she turned 35. According to this MSN look at her early life, as a girl, Parton was often peed on in the bed she shared with her younger siblings. She never got up to alert her parents or change the sheets because the warm urine was a welcome change from the frigid cold she often experienced at bedtime. Bathing could likewise be a nightmare. In the summer, Parton and her brothers and sisters washed in a nearby river, using soap they made themselves. In winter, everyone had to make due with a shared tiny pan of water.

Parton isn't bitter about her hard-scrabble roots. In fact, she told People magazine that she's grateful for the lessons her parents taught her in thrift and financial responsibility. "No matter how much money I make," she said, "I'll always count my blessings quicker and more often than I count my money." 

And her wild and free-ranging childhood in the Appalachian Mountains has provided endless songwriting inspiration. One of her first big hits, "Coat of Many Colors," tells the story of a coat a mother lovingly sews for her daughter out of donated rags. The coat draws mockery from the girl's schoolmates, but she knows that, while her family might be short of money, they're long on love.

Dolly Parton lost her younger brother Larry

Growing up in a large family meant that Parton and her siblings were often charged with taking care of one another. Parton remembers each older child being given an infant to take care of. Little Larry Parton was her responsibility. He was born in July 1955 when Dolly was just 9-years-old. It was her job to get up with him in the night and rock him, to feed him and change him when he needed it. She considered Larry her baby. Her over-worked mother, Avie Lee, trusted Larry to Parton's care. That made it all the more devastating for Dolly when Larry died just four days after he was born. 

Larry's death was a tragedy for the whole family, but it hit Dolly particularly hard. All these decades later, she can still recall the heartbreak she felt when her baby passed away and she's never quite gotten over the loss. 

Dolly Parton went from bluegrass to bubblegum and back again

Parton learned to love music from her mother's side of the family, and much of her knowledge of gospel, country, and bluegrass came courtesy of her maternal grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher. According to an interview she did with NPR's Terry Gross, she started writing songs at the tender age of seven, got her first guitar at eight, and began performing on television at 10. The day after she graduated high school, she left her home in the Appalachian Mountains for Nashville in the hopes of pursuing a singing and songwriting career in the country music capital of the world. 

The road to success rarely runs smooth, and Parton, who wanted to record country songs, was shoe-horned by her label, Monument Music, into the pop genre because executives thought her looks and voice ill-suited to country. This despite the fact that her songs all had the unmistakable twang and storytelling genius of Tennessee's east hills. 

It took some time, but, as this piece in Classic Country Music makes clear, she was eventually allowed to make the kind of music she wanted to, and her debut country single, "Dumb Blonde," made it to No. 24 in the charts. The hits kept on coming, and, in 1967, Monument released Hello, I'm Dolly, an album that made it clear once an for all that Parton was always more bluegrass than bubblegum.

Dolly Parton was rejected on the road

In 1967, following the release of her debut album, Hello, I'm Dolly, Parton was hand-picked by Porter Wagoner, a bonafide Nashville star, to appear in his television variety program and in his road show. Wagoner was immediately impressed and bewitched by the 20-year-old Parton's beauty, brains, and talent. She found it more difficult to win over his fans, however. They were used to seeing a songstress named Norma Jean by his side. Norma Jean bowed out to get married. Hey, it was a different time...

Anyway, as this All Muisic biography lays out, Parton did not get a very warm welcome in her first few appearances on the show. A number of audience members actually greeted her by chanting Norma Jean's name. 

It didn't take long for Parton to win over Wagoner's most loyal watchers, though, and she helped take The Porter Wagoner Show to the top of the television ratings. According to The Guardian, at the height of their fame, Parton and Wagoner were drawing a weekly viewership of 3.5 million, and their duets — including "Just Between You and Me," "The Last Thing on My Mind," and "Just Someone I Used to Know" — are considered some of the best coed efforts of the country music genre.

Breaking up is hard to do for Dolly Parton too

This may come as a surprise to fans of Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston, not to mention the 90s diva-meets-her-match drama, The Bodyguard, but the tear-jerking ballad, "I Will Always Love You," isn't really about a romantic love affair at all but a professional partnership that had run its course. 

In 1974 Parton was 28-years-old and intent upon pursuing a solo career, but that meant breaking with her long-time mentor. collaborator, and friend, Porter Wagoner. She'd been appearing on his television show for seven years and, for Parton, it was long past time to go out on her own. She'd planned to remain on the show for five years; she'd lasted seven. She'd paid her dues. Wagoner disagreed. In fact, he was distraught over her decision to leave and tried to talk her out of it. In this recounting of the breakup in The Boot, Parton claims she tackled the situation the best way she knew how — by writing a song. After confronting Wagoner, she went home and wrote "I Will Always Love You." The next day, she performed it for him, and, deeply touched, Wagoner let her go. 

It would be nice to end the story right there, but Wagoner went on to sue Parton for breach of contract. The two feuded for years before calling a truce and ending up friends. True to the song, she was by his side when he died. We're not crying. You're crying. 

Dolly Parton has a behind-the-scenes husband

Dolly Parton met her husband, Carl Thomas Dean, on her very first day in Nashville. According to Oprah Magazine, the two ran into each other outside the Wishy Washy laundromat when Parton was 18 and Dean 21. Dean was struck by Parton's pretty face. Parton liked how sweet and shy Dean was. Two years later, the two tied the knot in Ringgold, Georgia with only Parton's mother and the preacher in attendance. The wedding was a rushed affair, partially because Parton's label, Monument Music, worried that becoming a wife could stall her career. Parton, never one to be told what to do, decided to elope with her sweetheart. Her mother made her a dress and a bouquet and Parton and Dean found a small Baptist church that would take them on short notice.

Parton and Dean, who runs an asphalt company, have now been married for more than 50 years, but it hasn't always been easy. At a 1966 BMI dinner where Parton received a songwriting award for "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," Dean told his wife she'd have to attend such events on her own from then on. He wanted nothing to do with the entertainment business, and he's remained true to his word. Parton, who often describes her husband as a romantic, admitted to CNN that he has only seen her perform live a few times and isn't really a big fan of her music. "I'm like his little girl, I think," she said. "He just worries about that."

Dolly Parton is a mother to many (but not her own)

Growing up in an impoverished family of 12, Parton often mothered her siblings. Later, when she moved to Nashville to pursue a singing and songwriting career, she brought a number of her brothers and sisters and their children to live with her, mothering again. When she married Carl Thomas Dean in 1966, the two lovebirds talked about having children. Parton told The Guardian that she and her husband wondered what their kids would be like — would they be tall like him or petite like her? They threw names around. Like any young couple, they dreamed. But nothing happened. Parton's child-bearing years came and went and she and Dean eventually faced the fact that they would never have children of their own.

According to Country Living, Parton is very much resigned to her childlessness. In fact, she celebrates it. If she'd become a mother, she's not sure she would have been able to tour as she has, to become the star she was probably always meant to be, not to mention a mother figure to thousands of children all over the world who have the privilege of reading her children's books, enjoying her songs meant for young listeners, and benefiting from her charity, Imagination Library, which has donated more than 100 million free books to kids.

Dolly Parton considered ending her life

Dolly Parton is without a doubt an optimist. Anyone who's had her kind of rags-to-riches story would be. But there was a time when she got so low she contemplated ending it all. The dark period came in the early eighties when she had what, in the book, Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton, she called "an affair of the heart." Parton was married at the time, and the emotional cheating sent her into a deep depression. According to People magazine, the fall-out from the affair led her to binge eating, which gave rise to a number of health issues. She was also juggling family drama at the time, had been receiving random death threats, and had just finished filming The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, an experience she described as a "nightmare." She canceled a spate of performances and bowed out of the entertainment business for two years.

At one point, she found herself eyeing her handgun with too much interest. Then her dog, Popeye, came running up the stairs, and the pitter patter of his nails shocked her back to reality. She considers Popeye's appearance at that pivotal time as a message from God and credits her own brush with rock bottom with helping her understand the often desperate plights of others.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Dolly Parton was written off as a dumb blonde

Maybe it's because her first big hit was "Dumb Blonde," but for years people dismissed Dolly Parton as a large-breasted, small-brained ditz, enslaved to plastic surgery and the spotlight. Even Barbara Walters, that famous feminist, asked Parton in a 1977 interview if perhaps Parton's penchant for sky-high wigs and bling-encrusted dresses wasn't keeping people from taking her seriously. Walters even went so far as to suggest that Parton was a joke, a punchline. But the thing about Dolly? She's smart. She's funny and brilliant and quick on her feet. She also knows how to build an empire. Don't believe us? Ask AOL Finance, which estimates her net worth at $500 million. Who's laughing now? Dolly is, all the way to the bank.

Of course, Parton would be the first to say that money isn't everything. That's true. And it's also true that she never thought of herself as a pretty girl, so she piles on the makeup and the high hair and pours herself into high heels to enhance what God gave her. But you also can't argue with the kind of success she's achieved, or with her colorful comeback to Barbra Walters' wrong-headed condescension: "I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle around with makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself."

Dolly Parton was targeted by the KKK

Dolly Parton was, for a long time, infamously apolitical. According to Rolling Stone, she and the very liberal Jane Fonda made sure to stay far away from politics while on the set of 9 to 5 in order to keep the peace. Over time, though, Parton has had politics thrust upon her, namely in the area of gay rights. In the 80s and 90s, she became a gay icon and a go-to for drag queens around the world. Since then, she has embraced the gay community in a myriad of ways, including devoting a special day to the LGBTQ community at her Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. That move invited the ire of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members have protested Dollywood's so-called "Gay Day" and periodically rattle the singer with death threats.

Parton is not one to be intimidated by hate groups. She told the New York Daily News that if she were gay, she would "have come out of the closet, just a'flyin'."

A month of mourning

Having lived to the ripe young age of 73, Dolly Parton has known her share of loss. Her partner and one-time mentor, Porter Wagoner, died in 2007 at the age of 80. She lost her brother, Floyd, in 2018. Floyd was 61. And she knew death early. When she was 9-years-old, her infant brother, Larry, with whom she had a special bond, died just four days after he was born. Perhaps one of the most tragic losses in a long line of them has been that of her niece, Tever Parton, who died of a drug overdose at age 36. Dolly had been trying to help Tever overcome her problems with addiction, according to the website Starts at Sixty, and even paid to send her to rehab, but, in the end, the mother of two succumbed to substance abuse.

Just a month prior to Tever's death in April of 2017, Parton saw the passing of her manager, Don Warden, whom she met in 1967 on the set of The Porter Wagoner Show. Warden died at age 87 of natural causes. Parton responded to Warden's death with the perfect line, which, of course, she wrote herself: "I will always love you."

A rollercoaster ride (literally)

When Dolly Parton opened her country-western theme park, Dollywood, she did so with history in mind. The land the park stands on has a storied past, having served as an attraction in the Pigeon Forge area since 1961 when it was the Rebel Railroad. Later, it became Goldrush Junction. Parton bought the property in 1986, added a number of new attractions, including a chapel and a rocking porch theater, the rest is herstory. Dollywood has become one of America's most popular theme parks. It has also seen a spate of serious injuries, leading to lawsuits and bad press.

The most recent of these lawsuits was brought by a mother of two who claims that her experience on the RiverRush water coaster ended with partial paralyzation. According to TMZ, the woman was propelled off her seat and stuck her spine on a hard surface. As of 2019, she's suing Parton for $2 million. 

Another such case put the spotlight on Dollywood's safety record in 2014. A woman fell and struck her head on the pavement while exiting the Waltz Swinger ride. As this Fox News report shows, she suffered spinal and neck injuries, as well as a broken jaw, and sued for $475,000. The two parties settled out of court.