Home Health Inside Her Early Career and Country Music Dreams

Inside Her Early Career and Country Music Dreams

145
0


Dolly Parton has long been an American icon and is regarded as one of the greatest songwriters and singers of our time — not to mention, a dynamite TV and movie personality. Although pretty much everybody loves Dolly now, that was not always the case, as Nancy Anderson discovered when she visited the artist’s hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee for the February 1988 issue of Good Housekeeping. There was plenty of petty jealousy to go around, and although it bothered Dolly, it certainly did not deter her. Speaking to Dolly, as well as family members, teachers and classmates, Nancy’s deep dive into Dolly’s past gives us a candid look at the real life of one of our greatest stars. Alex Belth, Hearst archivist


If Dolly Parton were a mean-spirited woman, the barefoot bronze girl on the lawn of the Sevier County Courthouse in Sevierville, Tennessee would be her revenge on the townsfolk who’d once laughed at her.

Sevierville, Dolly’s hometown, was named for John Sevier, a Tennessee hero, famous Indian fighter and the state’s first governor. But it’s not his statue on the lawn of the Sevier County Courthouse. It’s Dolly Parton’s, guitar on her lap, and it was erected by admiring Sevierville residents at a cost of $60,000, raised through public subscription.

 

preview for Good Housekeeping US Section: Life

It symbolizes how the local attitude toward Dolly has changed since that night in 1954 when the baccalaureate service for her high school graduating class took place at the First Baptist Church.

“Dolly was the happiest person I ever saw.”

As part of the program, each senior was asked to stand and announce their ambition. Most said that they wanted to be doctors or lawyers. But when Dolly’s turn came, she jumped to her feet and proclaimed, “I’m going to Nashville to be a singer and a songwriter.”

A few seconds of startled silence was followed by laughter. But in the end, Dolly had the last laugh.

Dolly, the fourth of 12 Parton children, was born on January 19, 1946 at her parents’ farm home in the Tennessee mountains. It was bitterly cold. Snow had fallen the night before, and the morning was so frigid that when a cousin mopped the Parton floor, the scrub water formed a sheet of ice.

tennessee   circa 1955 country singer dolly parton poses for a portrait in circa 1955 in tennessee photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Country singer Dolly Parton poses for a portrait circa 1955 in Tennessee.

Michael Ochs Archives

Willadeene, the eldest of the Parton children, remembers that she and her brothers thought Dolly was the prettiest baby they’d ever seen.

Dolly has spoken often both of the poverty that afflicted the Parton household and of the love that sustained it, but former neighbors say that the family wasn’t really thought of as poor because they weren’t any poorer than anybody else.

“They had a big potato patch,” one old friend recalls.

Clyde McCarter, in whose yard Dolly played, says, “She grew up hard, but everybody lived hard then.”

Faye Dunn, who lived near the Partons and whose brother has been married to and divorced from Dolly’s sister Willadeene, points out that electricity wasn’t brought into the neighborhood until 1951, so Dolly’s family wasn’t the only one without electric lights and a television set. While the Partons lived modestly, Mrs. Dunn says the children were adequately clothed, and there was always good food in the house because Mrs. Parton was an excellent cook.

“Nobody in their wildest dreams imagined Dolly would become such a big star.”

“I always loved to go to the Parton house,” Mrs. Dunn remembers, “Because they all had so much fun. Dolly was the happiest person I ever saw.”

Dolly began her public singing as a tot at the church where her grandfather Jake Owens preached. However, Clyde McCarter opines, “She wasn’t the best singer in the family — her sisters Stella and Cassie were better.”

All the children in the congregation sang, encouraged by Grandpa Jake, who loved good gospel music. Yet, since the little Partons were mischievous, going to church featured more than singing and worship — on at least one memorable Sunday.

Once, according to Willadeene, she, Dolly and brothers David and Denver got some whiskey from their daddy’s hidden supply and sipped it all the way to Sunday school and finished it off just as they reached the church. That day, instead of singing out, they sat still and quiet, hoping no one would smell their breath.

Dolly’s first schoolteacher, Mrs. Archie Ray McMahan, can’t recall exactly when she met the youngster. “Back then,” Mrs. McMahan says, “children used to bring their younger brothers and sisters to school, so Dolly may have come to school when she was only two or three. But I know when she enrolled in the first grade in August, she was going to be six the following January.”

Mrs. McMahan had been recruited against her will to preside over the Locust Ridge School, a one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse atop a mountain so remote that she had to walk two miles each morning and afternoon to get there and back home. The only amenities the little building had were a water bucket and dipper, a stove and an outhouse.

Mrs. McMahan remembers Dolly as a sweet, well-behaved child with a convenient memory. “One day,” she says, “when she was supposed to be reading aloud, I realized that she wasn’t looking at the book. I found out that she couldn’t read; she was reciting from memory. So I got some flashcards and worked with her and then she learned to read. The thing I remember best about her is that she was always ready with an answer.”

She also remembers holding Dolly, and other students, on her lap and rubbing their little legs to increase circulation when they arrived at school in freezing weather, since the children, like their teacher, had to walk or ride a horse two miles up the mountain.

Dolly’s second teacher was Tilman Robertson, who took her on her first visit to a television station in Knoxville where Dolly got to sing, accompanied by another student, Dian McCarter, who played the guitar.

Dian, now Dian Robertson and one of Dolly’s closest hometown friends, says, “I was terrified, but Dolly wasn’t afraid at all.”


When Dolly was only 10 years old, her uncle Bill Owens, himself a singer, took her to the Cas Walker radio and television show in Knoxville. She was hired to sing during the summer months for $20 a week. At first, she stayed in Knoxville with an aunt and uncle who lived there. But she soon began staying with Carl and Pearl Butler, both performers and songwriters.

“When Dolly comes home, she’s nice to everyone, but you can tell she remembers who treated her badly.”

Mrs. Butler says that Dolly preferred being with them because they didn’t go to bed as early as her relatives and would take her to the movies. “She was 11 years old when she started staying with us,” Mrs. Butler says fondly, “and was full of life and full of tricks. Once she stripped my little nephew naked and sent him [outdoors]. Years later he met her at a Hollywood studio and asked if she knew who he was. When she remembered what she had done, they had a good laugh.”

Dolly’s famous curves developed early, to her embarrassment, Mrs. Butler recalls. “She used to try and bind herself flatter until I told her, ‘You may hurt yourself. God gave ’em to you, so don’t be ashamed.’”

“I told her she needed to get a good brassiere. She didn’t want to, but finally I got her to go with me to a department store, and I bought her a bra. She put it on and said, ‘I look like an advertisement for Pet Milk.’”

country singer dolly parton poses for a portrait, circa 1970 photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Country singer Dolly Parton poses for a portrait circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives

Although Dolly had seen a flush toilet and electric lights at her aunt’s Knoxville home, she was fascinated by the Butlers’ conveniences. She’d flush the toilet just to see it work, and Mrs. Butler remembers she’d turn the lights off and on, “until the switches almost fell off the walls.”

And when Mrs. Butler baked a chocolate cake for Dolly, the little girl was so excited, she plunged her face into it. “But don’t make me no more chocolate,” she said, “because chocolate breaks me out.”


Dolly continued to stay off and on with the Butlers until her marriage, an event Mrs. Butler had been expecting, “because anybody like Dolly would have to get married to have someone to protect her. I mean, she was so pretty, boys were bound to chase her, so she needed a husband. Dolly’s husband, Carl Dean, is just as handsome as Dolly is beautiful,” Mrs. Butler judges.

Dolly attended Sevier County High School, which she hated — even though the school has an excellent music program. The first member of her family to finish high school, she claimed that she was the most popular girl in the student body, “but in the wrong way.” She got attention, she maintains, because she wore tight clothes and told dirty jokes.

Yet her former teacher, Mrs. Julia Householder, doesn’t think her clothes were unusually tight and can’t believe Dolly told dirty jokes. “She was just a normal, giggly girl,” Mrs. Householder says, “who wore more makeup than some and less than others. I was a guidance counselor, and she talked to me about wanting to go into music and entertainment. I can’t recall what I said to her, but I hope I told her to keep trying. However, nobody in their wildest dreams imagined Dolly would become such a big star.”


While teenage Dolly was a dish, old friends say she didn’t have many dates, partly because she lived a long way from town and partly because her father didn’t encourage them.

People who knew Dolly in high school and liked her still resent the treatment she got from some of her peers. When her senior class awarded the “most” titles (most beautiful, most talented, etc.) Dolly was ignored.

However, slights went much deeper than that. A friend of Dolly’s says, “It makes me furious to hear some people boast that they were friends of Dolly’s when she was growing up when, in fact, they weren’t nice to her. When Dolly comes home, she’s nice to everyone, but you can tell she remembers who treated her badly.”

The day after she graduated from high school, she lit out for Nashville to look for a job in the music industry — and she met two men who changed her life completely. One was country singing star Porter Wagoner, who turned the mountain girl into a popular recording and television star. The other was Carl Dean, whom she married.

circa 1967 country singer dolly parton and her collaborator porter wagoner perform onstage in circa 1967 mr wagoner is wearing a nudie suit designed by nudie cohn of nudies rodeo tailors photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Country singer Dolly Parton and her collaborator Porter Wagoner perform onstage circa 1967.

Michael Ochs Archives

Porter asked Dolly to come to his office for a business conference. She figured he wanted to use a song she had written and sent to him. But Wagoner told her that the girl singer on his television show was going to marry and move to Oklahoma and that he was considering Dolly as a replacement. Wagoner asked her if she’d be willing to wear conservative clothes, since his was a family show, and Dolly said she would.

Then he asked her if she knew many hymns.

“Minnie Hemms?” Dolly inquired. “No, I don’t believe I know her.”

Since they’d been talking about costumes, Dolly thought Wagoner was recommending a seamstress to her. Porter thought the mistake was charming.

Dolly joined him on The Porter Wagoner Show, syndicated out of Nashville, and on hit records. She wrote many of their duets. Her earnings soon reached $60,000 a year. But after seven years, she left Wagoner.

According to Dolly, she met Carl Dean in a launderette. But Willadeene says they met after Carl drove past Dolly, waved and she waved back (since in Sevierville, that was good manners).

In any case Dolly began dating the lanky paving contractor and on Memorial Day, 1966, they were married in Ringgold, Georgia with the bride’s mother in attendance. In fact, she was in attendance for most of their wedding night because, after riding with Dolly and Carl almost all of the way back to Nashville, Mrs. Parton remembered that she’d left her purse in Ringgold. Already the good son-in-law, Carl turned the car around and drove back to retrieve the purse.

Dolly insists that she and Carl have a sublimely happy marriage. She says he’s her “daddy” and her “little boy” and her best friend as well as her husband. She loves him, she says, and he loves her, though physically they aren’t a close couple.

Dolly says Carl gives her freedom, “but he knows I ain’t really goin’ nowhere. We both know we’ll never find anyone we love as much as we love each other.”

Though Dolly says that Carl’s not jealous and neither is she, one has to wonder how he really feels when he reads interviews like the one Dolly gave in 1981, in which she declared: “I certainly was not a loose girl, and I’m not a loose woman. But sex is an overwhelming emotion. Natural as breathing. I will say that if I feel the need to express my emotion, I’m gonna do it.”

unspecified   january 01  photo of dolly parton  photo by richard e aaronredferns

Dolly Parton performing circa 1970.

Richard E. Aaron

Carl’s a mystery to the public because he’s seldom photographed. In fact, he is so camera-shy that when he finally consented to pose for a photo for the Dollywood museum, he met the photographer with a paper sack over his head. But Sevierville folk like Carl and think of him as sensible and down-to-earth. Gary Wade, who went to school with Dolly says, “You don’t have to worry about there not being a real side to her once you meet Carl.”

After a deeply depressing period during which she almost lost her voice, Dolly says she’s now as happy as a person can be. She’s also about as thin as a person can be. To the suggestion she’s too thin, that she looks anorexic, Dolly guffaws, “Honey, hogs don’t get anorexia.”

“I now wear size 0 to 3 jeans and weigh between 95 and 100 pounds,” Dolly says, “which is the size I ought to be. I’m really just a little, bitty person with a big mouth. A lot of people think I’m too skinny now because they’ve seen me so fat for so long. The other day my mam said, ‘Honey, you ain’t no bigger than a bar of soap.’”

Back in Sevierville, Dolly still has a few critics, but even they have to admit she’s done a lot for the town. Dollywood, an amusement park, has made nearby Pigeon Forge a major draw for tourists. Dolly is the national chairman of the Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation, which supports the hospital in Sevierville and is named for the mountain doctor who traveled on horseback to deliver Dolly. A rehabilitation center in the hospital’s new wing is named for Dolly herself.

Ironically, Dolly, the girl who hated school so much she has said she cries when she sees children on a school bus, has for the past 17 years given scholarships to Sevier County High School graduates and now gives scholarships to graduates of each of the county’s high schools. Her friend Dian is in charge of the scholarship program.

In addition, Dolly has raised money to supply some of her school’s needs by giving concerts and paying all of the expenses involved out of her own pocket.

las vegas, nevada   march 07 co host dolly parton speaks onstage during the the 57th academy of country music awards at allegiant stadium on march 07, 2022 in las vegas, nevada photo by kevin wintergetty images for acm

Dolly Parton performing at the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards in 2022.

Kevin Winter

“I got closer to her after she started doing the concerts,” her former teacher Mrs. Householder says. “Once before a concert she was helping me move a table and called me ‘Mrs. Householder.’ I said, ‘Dolly, don’t you think it’s time for you to call me ‘Julia’? Well, she put down her end of the table, thought a minute, and said, ‘I don’t believe I can do that. You’re my teacher.’”

Dolly has also said, “I never did have the sense to be scared.” If she had, the laughter on her baccalaureate night might have scared her back into the hills. But if it affected her at all, it only increased her gumption.

“It took me a long time to get here,” Dolly says. “So there’s no telling what I’m liable to do next.”

Previous articleSurgical Holdings to highlight training programme at AfPP Conference
Next articleDetecting ‘hot’ disease in arteries; small muscle pain risk with statins