The Untold Truth Of Dolly Parton's Family

Dolly Parton is one of the most famous, most successful, and most universally beloved performers in American history. After launching her career on The Porter Wagoner Show in the late '60s, Parton ascended to superstardom and country royalty in the '70s with her twangy, lilting voice taking songs (which she wrote herself) like "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors," and "I Will Always Love You" to the top of the charts, into the hearts of millions, and into the great American songbook. Parton's towering hairdo, infectious smile, and charming personality certainly didn't hurt her appeal, all of which she used when she became a movie star in the '80s, via 9 to 5, Rhinestone, and Steel Magnolias.

Parton wasn't born into showbiz — she came from extremely humble beginnings, raised in a tiny house on a farm in the rural Smoky Mountains community of Sevier County, Tennessee. Parton is one of a dozen children, all of whom have their own story to tell. Here's a look into the lives of Parton's many brothers and sisters, as well as her parents, nieces, and more.

Dolly Parton's parents had a big family

Dolly Parton is the fourth-oldest sibling in a family that would come to include a total of 12 children born to Robert and Avie Lee Parton (nee Owens). According to the New Yorker, Robert Lee Parton (known as just Lee, or "Widner" to friends) came from a long line of farmers, and early in adulthood, he toiled as a sharecropper, a unique and wholly nonlucrative arrangement by which part of the harvest is paid to the landowners as rent. However, by the time Dolly turned 5 in 1951, Lee had acquired his own parcel of land in Sevier County, Tennessee, which he used to farm tobacco and raise livestock. To help fund his large family's needs, he also worked in construction. 

The patriarch of the Parton family died in August 2003 at age 79, after suffering from a series of strokes. His death preceded that of 80-year-old Avie Lee four months later. The couple married in 1939, when Avie, raised in a family of musicians and the daughter of a South Carolina preacher, was just 19 years old.

Stella Parton records a lot of music

While Dolly Parton was storming her way up the country charts over and over again in the 1960s and 1970s, her younger sister Stella Parton was right there behind her. Not only has she formed her own record label, but since the early '70s, she's released more than 30 albums full of country, traditional, and spiritual music, with her most fruitful and prominent period of success coming in the '70s and '80s. 

Stella scored a long string of moderate and minor hits on Billboard's country chart, including the 1975 top 10 single, "I Want to Hold You in My Dreams Tonight," followed by Top 20 smashes like "Standard Lie Number One," "The Danger of a Stranger," and "Four Little Letters." How does Stella's voice sound? Some might say a lot like that of Dolly, which helped offer audiences a seamless transition when Stella starred in a touring production of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas just after Dolly headlined the film version.

Randy Parton saw music success and business blunders

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, country went pop, thanks to the John Travolta movie Urban Cowboy and performers with mainstream appeal, like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. In the wake of that, Dolly's brother Randy Parton signed a deal with RCA Records and released a few recordings. 

In 1982, he appeared on the country showcase show Pop Goes the Country to perform "Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)," a rock-tinged tune about a long-haul trucker. That song wasn't a hit for Randy (in 1984, Alabama covered it and took it to No. 1 on the country chart). But in the early '80s, he had a few moderate successes, such as the Top 30 hits, "Hold Me Like You Never Had Me" and "Shot Full of Love." As the decade progressed, Randy collaborated with his very successful sister more, playing bass in her live band and backing her up as a member of the Cut N' Slice Band in her 1984 musical comedy Rhinestone.

In the mid-2000s, Randy struck a lucrative deal with the city of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, which paid him a $1.5 million annual salary to manage and perform at the Randy Parton Theater, the centerpiece of a planned entertainment complex. (He also got a fully furnished home and use of a car in the deal.) By 2008, Randy had left the project after a series of business disagreements.

One of Dolly Parton's biggest duets was written by her brother Floyd Parton

Beginning in his early 20s, Floyd Parton toiled as a songwriter in the Nashville country music scene for years. Some of his biggest successes arrived when his big-voiced older sister took a hold of them. Floyd and Dolly Parton's collaborative composition, "Nickels and Dimes," was included on the latter's 1978 album Heartbreaker, and Floyd alone wrote "Waltz Me to Heaven," a soundtrack cut from Dolly's 1984 movie Rhinestone. In 1991, Dolly and Ricky Van Shelton made a duet out of Floyd's "Rockin' Years," which went all the way to No. 1 on the country chart. Floyd also wrote songs for George Jones and two of his other musically inclined family members, Stella and his twin sister, Freida.

According to Billboard, Floyd passed away in December 2018. Sister Stella was with him at the time that he died near where he grew up in Tennessee. The songwriter was 61 years old.

Like Dolly Parton, Rachel Dennison had a 9 to 5 job

Dolly Parton's rise to become the benevolent queen of media was a three-pronged process. She started out as a featured performer on Porter Wagoner's TV variety show in the 1960s, became a country solo superstar in the 1970s, and gave acting a shot in the 1980s, starting with 9 to 5, a dark comedy about workplace revenge costarring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Released in 1980, the film earned $103 million, meaning it was popular enough for ABC to adapt it into a sitcom in 1982. 

Parton was a little too busy and famous to reprise her role as Doralee Rhodes, so producers instead cast 22-year-old Hollywood newcomer Rachel Dennison. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Parton, which is to be expected, because Dennison is Parton's younger sister. Prior to her role on TV's 9 to 5, Dennison worked as a makeup artist for her superstar sibling. According to People, Fonda visited Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in 1981 and upon meeting Dennison thought she'd be perfect for the sitcom adaptation of 9 to 5, which she was producing. "I asked Dolly's permission to bring Rachel out to read for the part. As soon as she stepped foot on the lot, everyone started calling asking who she was." 

9 to 5 lasted five seasons, with Dennison appearing in all 85 episodes, but after the show wrapped in 1988, she never acted again.

Freida Parton was a would-be '80s rock star

More than a decade younger than her celebrity sister, Freida Parton left the family home in Tennessee at age 13 to go live with Dolly Parton in Nashville. Not yet 20, she married Mark Andersen, part of Dolly's backing band, and together they'd collaborate on "Sing for the Common Man," a track which appeared on her sister's 1980 album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs

Soon after, Freida landed a record deal and set about making a debut album, but a serious fall in 1981 left her recuperating and out of the studio. Finally, in 1984, Freida released her debut LP, Two-Faced. Unlike her musically inclined siblings, Freida didn't show much interest for country and its associated genres — Two-Faced is a pretty heavy hard rock album, as evidenced by the single "Oriental Dolls." The video for the song got some MTV airplay but was otherwise a commercial flop, despite Freida promoting it with a scantily-clad pictorial for Playboy.

Outside of music, Freida has lived a colorful life. As of 2014, she's been married and divorced four times but still believes in love, opening and subsequently managing and performing services at the Parton Family Wedding Chapel in Sevierville, Tennessee.

Willadeene Parton is her family's chronicler

Dolly Parton has always proudly embraced and celebrated her heritage as a member of a big family from rural Tennessee, home to a lot of rich and distinctively American history, culture, and food. Her sister Willadeene Parton emerged as the family's historian, capturing in print the Partons' collective childhoods and along the way becoming a chronicler of a broader culture at large. 

Usually going by the pen name of simply "Willadeene," the author in the family has published three books – In the Shadow of a Song: The Story of the Parton Family in 1985, Smoky Mountain Memories: Stories from the Hearts of the Parton Family in 1996, and All-Day Singing & Dinner on the Ground in 1997, a collection of stories and classic Southern recipes.

Willadeene briefly gave music a try. In 1967, with sisters Cassie and Stella and mother Avie, she recorded a gospel album as The Parton Family, called In the Garden, released on the small Inspiration Records label. It didn't sell many copies, and the group disbanded.

It was Dolly Parton's uncle, Bill Owens, who got her into music

In 2013, Dolly Parton made a special appearance at her Dollywood theme park and entertainment complex to unveil a new section of the Chasing Rainbows Museum, one dedicated to her maternal uncle, Bill Owens, her first manager and champion of her musical skills. "He saw me when I was just a little thing, singing my songs," Parton said. "He's actually been the one that's helped me more than anyone else through the years."

According to The Mountain Press (via SmokeyKin), Parton was about 10 years old and washing dishes when Owens, a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, took notice. "I thought she could be a star the first time I heard her in that kitchen," he said. 

Before long, he took her to sing on The Cas Walker Show, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based radio variety show. Producers were so impressed they hired Parton to be a regular performer. When Parton got a bit older, she started writing songs with Owens, and they landed a deal with Combine Music, then formed their own music publishing company, Owe-Par. One of the duo's first and biggest professional successes came when country star Bill Phillips recorded hit versions of their songs "The Company You Keep" and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow." As Parton became a major star in the 1970s, Owens continued to strike it big as a songwriter, penning tunes for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Crystal Gayle, and Kris Kristofferson.

Dolly Parton lost a younger brother when she was 9 years old

Avie Lee Parton was a mother of 12 by the time that she was 35, and so she delegated child-rearing duties of some of the younger kids to some of her older kids. "My mother, through the years, when we were born, since there were so many of us, used to say, 'This one is gonna be you baby,'" Parton told reporters at a 2015 press event (via Fox News) promoting Coat of Many Colors, the TV movie about her childhood in Tennessee. "That just meant that you got to take extra care of it. You have got to get up with it at night and rock it back and forth." Upon his birth in July 1955, newborn Larry Parton was assigned in such a manner to Dolly, age 9 at the time. 

Tragically, the newest addition to the Parton brood suffered from health problems, and just four days after he was born, he passed away. "There is a lot of heartache and stuff that goes on with that," Parton said, adding that it was tough to address and relive the period surrounding Larry's death when it was depicted onscreen in Coat of Many Colors. "All things are hard, but that is what makes your memories. That is what makes you who and what you are."

Two of Dolly Parton's nieces have made headlines

Born into a huge family, Dolly Parton didn't grow up to have a big brood of her own — she never had biological children, but that suited her just fine. "Several of my brothers and sisters came to live with me early on in my life. I've loved their kids just like they're my grandkids," Parton told People Country, adding that her many nieces and nephews call her "Aunt Granny."

One of those nieces is singer Heidi Parton. Daughter of Randy Parton and his wife, Deb, Heidi started regularly performing at her aunt's Dollywood theme park from the age of 4 up until she turned 19. Sadly, the Parton family lost one of its own in 2017. Tever Parton, Dolly Parton's niece and Heidi Parton's older sister, passed away at age 36 in March 2017. According to RadarOnline, she'd battled drug addiction and had recently lost custody of her son at the time of her death, which was attributed to an overdose.

Dolly Parton has been married for decades to the seldom-seen Carl Dean

Dolly Parton makes a lot of public appearances but generally does them alone. It's not that the enchanting singer is forever single — she's been married to her first and only husband Carl Dean since 1966, a man who doesn't want to have anything to do with show business.

"He's like, a quiet, reserved person and he figured if he ever got out there in all that, he'd never get a minute's peace and he's right about that," Parton told Entertainment Tonight of her spouse, who is so rarely photographed that some fans theorize that he doesn't actually exist. When they do go out together, it's out in their RV or to the Taco Bell drive-through (according to Country Living), which Dean has plenty of time to do ever since he retired from running his asphalt-paving business.

At least one of Parton's most famous songs is about her husband. Her 1973 hit "Jolene" concerns a redheaded temptress with designs on the narrator's man, and the singer begs and pleads to not steal him away with her wiles and beauty "beyond compare." While Jolene's name and appearance came from a young fan Parton met in the 1960s, the character is based on a bank teller who flirted heavily with Dean. "She got this terrible crush on my husband," Parton told NPR's All Things Considered. "And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us."

A few of Dolly Parton's siblings lived life out of the spotlight

Not every member of Dolly Parton's large family sought a career in entertainment. Not all of the Parton siblings felt a need to pursue music professionally or get a taste of the fame and limelight that had so enriched certain members of their family. Unlike the Jackson family from nearby Indiana, in which every kid gave music a try (to varying levels of success), a few of the Partons of Tennessee hung back and have lived intensely private lives, or at least quiet ones, compared to that of Dolly, a music legend who is also a movie star and theme park entrepreneur. 

Among them, Cassie Nan Parton dabbles in music, and in 2013, she performed alongside her more outgoing siblings in My People, a live show at Dollywood. Bobby Lee Parton stayed in Tennessee, marrying in 1967 and having a couple of kids before divorcing in 1982. Coy Denver Parton is also a family man, marrying a woman named Carolyn and raising two daughters, one of whom he named Dolly.