Meet young Dolly Parton before she was a country icon, movie star & philanthropist

Young Dolly Parton at Click Americana

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She’s one of a kind, and she’s as real as they come. 

Whether you’re a die-hard country music fan or not, chances are you’re familiar with the glittering persona and powerhouse voice of Dolly Parton.

Dolly Rebecca Parton, born in 1946, has always been the life of the party — the kind of party that never runs out of stories or songs.

Raised in the rustic hollers of East Tennessee, young Dolly Parton was one of twelve siblings in a family that had more love than money. A self-proclaimed “dirt poor” child, Parton’s humble beginnings inspired her unique blend of music and storytelling. It’s a quality that’s kept her career thriving for more than six decades.

Young Dolly Parton - Happy Birthday Baby single (1965)

Young Dolly Parton kicked off her career in the mid-60s, early on working alongside country music singer Porter Wagoner on his television program. The exposure Parton gained on “The Porter Wagoner Show” was a springboard to national recognition, and launched a partnership that resulted in a series of hit duets.

However, as Parton’s solo career began to gain momentum, she made the hard decision to branch out on her own, sparking her poignant song, “I Will Always Love You.”

Initially written as a farewell to Wagoner, the song became a sensation, cementing her place in the country music pantheon, and crossing over to mainstream pop success when it was covered by Whitney Houston in 1992.

YouTube video

Parton’s influence didn’t stop at music. Her larger-than-life personality naturally transitioned into acting. Films like “9 to 5” and “Steel Magnolias” earned her recognition on the silver screen. Yet, she never strayed far from her musical roots, but used film as another medium to share her songs.

Dolly Parton’s philanthropy is as well-known as her music. From literacy programs to medical research funding, Parton’s generosity is far-reaching. Her Imagination Library project, founded in 1995, has provided over 100 million free books to children across the globe, promoting literacy and a love for reading.

Dolly Parton platinum album (1978)

Looking back, Parton’s music career has been nothing short of extraordinary. From her early days on “The Porter Wagoner Show” to becoming a multi-platinum selling artist, her talent has always been undeniable.

Even now in her seventies, she shows no signs of slowing down, still with her trademark look — embodying her own quote, “It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise, I’d be a drag queen.”

Below, meet the unstoppable young Dolly Parton at age 24, and see how her career grew & grew — plus see lots of photos of her through the years.

Dolly - Saturday Evening Post (1979)

Miss Dolly Parton: Blonde bombshell of the Great Smokies (1970)

Article by Sak Hurst, The Tennessean (Memphis, TN) September 27, 1970

My voice was real different — not that it’s good, because a lot of people just cannot STAND to hear me sing. Anybody with a real different voice, a lot of people don’t like to hear sing, but people who do like them usually like them especially well. — Dolly Parton

On the wall behind the desk at which her uncle sat, her picture — a large and engaging color photograph framed in gold — beamed down on all who might enter Owepar Music.

Young Dolly Parton early publicity photo with beehive hairstyle
Young Dolly Parton publicity photo (1968)

Her hair hung in perfect golden ringlets beside her face, and she was smiling in the wacky way she does when people tell her she is beautiful, grinning as if it is maybe the most hugely funny lie she has heard all week.

“Dolly’ll be in in just a minute,” the uncle, Louie Owens, said rather nervously to the prospective interviewer. “She’s talkin’ to somebody about a song, and won’t be but a second.”

On the wall opposite the picture, facing the desk at which Louie Owens fidgeted, hung several framed Broadcast Music Inc. award citations to Owepar for songs Dolly had written or co-written. Over there also hung the latest recording popularity charts distributed by Billboard and Record World.

Old Dolly Parton singles (1969)

“She’s doin’ pretty good right now,” her uncle said. “‘Muleskinner Blues’ is No. 1 in Record World and No. 3 in Billboard. And ‘Daddy Was An Old-Time Preacher Man’ is No. 8 in Billboard.”

In the minute or so he had forecast, his niece walked into her office in a glittering black jumpsuit dotted with regularly-spaced, diamond-shaped, white patterns the size of once-folded dollar bills. The blonde hair hung long today, not done up high in ringlets, and she extended her hand in the frank, happy shake folks use back home in the hills.

“Hi, I’m proud to meet you.” She sat down in the chair, crossed her legs and then clasped her hands across her waist to wait for the first question. 

Not long after it came, however, she kicked off the gold shoes and pulled her feet up into the chair with her, holding her knees in both arms. By that time, she was well into remembering who Dolly Rebecca Parton used to be.

Young Dolly Parton up-and-coming vocalist (1967)

Young Dolly Parton: The bombshell

Dolly Parton, who at her present age of 24 years is the blonde bombshell of the Porter Wagoner Show, was born the fourth of a dozen children of a farmer-turned-construction worker in Sevier County, Tennessee.

“Mama and Daddy were married pretty early in life — she was 15 and he was 17,” she said. She sighed and then smiled that wacky smile. “So they done… pretty well.”

Her first memories seem to be of a farm of several hundred acres “‘way back in the Smoky Mountains at a place that was called Webb’s Mountain then.” The family moved there when she was three and stayed — raising crops and animals “mainly just for our own survival, rather than to sell” — for about five years.

“I graduated from Sevier County High School in 1964, but up until then, I went to elementary school just wherever we would move to, because we used to move quite a bit after we left the big farm,” she recalled.

After having moved around the county for a couple of years, the Partons finally settled in tiny Caton’s Chapel community when Dolly was around 10. Her parents still live there today.

Dolly Parton vintage single Hey Lucky Lady (1976)

Religion and fun

At Webb’s Mountain and Caton’s Chapel and the other small communities in which Dolly grew up, religion was both a solemn duty and a looked-forward-to recreation.

Particularly was this true of the Partons. Dolly Parton’s grandfather was a minister, the Rev. Mr. Owens, an old-time preacher man.

In the words one of his daughters and one of his granddaughters would use someday, the Rev. Mr. Owens “preached hell so hot that you could feel the heat.” In the song about him which currently is among the top ten country songs in the nation, Dolly Parton and Mrs Dorothy Hope tried to convey the spirit of the way it was in that fundamentalist church in the hills.

Dolly Parton's family (1980s)
Top row: Randy, David, Willadeene, Rachel, Dolly, mom & dad – Bottom row: Cassie, Stella, Denver, Freida, Floyd & Bobby

“There’s a verse in the song where it says, ‘Sister Leona would get up to testify,'” Miss Dolly said, “and I actually did have an Aunt Leona and she actually would get up in the service to testify.

“I was brought up in the Church of God, which is the church where they shout and sing and everything, which I love,” she continued in a more subdued way. “I always loved to sing in church. When you get to singing those old gospel songs and get that good spiritual feeling — well, there’s just nothing else like it.”

Before long, however, Dolly Parton was singing something besides hymns, and she was singing so well that one of her mother’s brothers, Bill Owens, decided to get her on the radio in Knoxville.

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Dolly Parton - Love is Like a Butterfly
Dolly Parton – Love is Like a Butterfly (1974)

By the time she was in high school, she was writing some of the songs she sang, and some were uncommonly good for a girl her age. Growing up in small farm communities in the mountains, where the work was hard and time often passed slowly, Dolly Parton became fascinated with the transmigration that was possible with a guitar, a piece of paper and a stub of pencil.

“When I’m writing,” she said curled up in that easy chair in her Music Row office, “I can be anywhere and any thing that I want to be. If I’m writing about a dog or a cat — whatever I’m writing about, I am that thing. And I’m the kind of person that even the ugliest duckling is pretty to me, some way or another.”

One wonders what her classmates at Sevier County High thought of her then as they saw her on the Knoxville television station, singing on a program sponsored by grocery king Cas Walker.

YouTube video

‘Live and in-person’

Last spring, as “live and in-person” recordings at such places as Carnegie Hall became the vogue for country singers, Miss Dolly gathered up an RCA engineering crew, stage boss Porter Wagoner and Wagoner’s Wagon Masters. She took them with her one evening to do her own “live” album. But rather than Carnegie Hall, she took them to Sevier County High School.

The day before the performance that evening — a day called “Dolly Parton Day” in Sevierville — the blonde bombshell announced she was donating her part of the proceeds of that night’s show to set up a scholarship fund for deserving students at the high school. She promised to return for benefit shows whenever they were needed to maintain the fund.

Dolly Parton Day, 1970, was a roaring success. It must have made the honoree recall a certain Saturday morning six years before, the morning following her graduation night, when a less-assured Dolly Rebecca — accompanied only by her suitcase — took a long look at Sevierville from a different vantage point. It was from the high window of a Greyhound bus getting into gear for the run to Nashville.

Dolly Parton meeting TV studio audience (1970)
Dolly Parton meeting TV studio audience (1970)

Memorable walk

The uncle who had gotten her on the Cas Walker Show in Knoxville, Bill Owens, had moved to Nashville with his wife and young son three weeks before his niece graduated from high school. “So I was to stay with them until I could get something going and find myself a place of my own,” Dolly remembers.

When she arrived at the Owens’ apartment in the State Fairgrounds area of South Nashville, Dolly Parton had some clothes to wash because she had left for Nashville in such a hurry. So, taking her dirty clothes in her arms, she walked to a nearby laundromat on her first afternoon in Nashville. It turned out to be memorable in more ways than one.

Her long yellow locks shook as she giggled, remembering it. “I got me a big RC Cola and while my clothes were washing I just went out walkin’ down the sidewalk to see Nashville,” she said.

Dolly Parton on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine (1979)
Dolly Parton on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine (1979)

“I was just walkin’ down the street and this boy came by in this white ’59 or ’60 Chevrolet. He went down first and he flirted and, of course, being fresh from the country, well, up where I come from everybody was friendly to everybody because everybody was friends, and I didn’t know that you just couldn’t do that anywhere.”

The young man in the Chevrolet shouted at her, and she smiled and waved. “‘Cause I was just so proud to be here, you know,” she said, laughing. “I guess kind of in the back of my mind I was maybe flirtin’ a little, too,” she admitted, “but mainly I was just bein’ friendly because I’d always been the kind of person who would speak back and smile.”

My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy - Dolly Parton album

In a few minutes, the Chevrolet was passing her for the second time as she strolled along the street, and she was thinking perhaps she should not appear so friendly. The car slowed again and the young man hung his head out the window.

“Hey, you’re gonna get sunburned out walking around like that,” he yelled.

“I don’t reckon it’ll hurt anything,” Dolly replied.

He stopped the car and got out to talk. “Where you from?” he asked.

“I told him I was from Knoxville because I didn’t figure he’d know where Sevierville was,” she said. “He still kids me about saying I was from Knoxville. He says I said it kind of highfalutin’ or somethin,’ but I didn’t.”

He tried to get her to go out with him, but she would not at first. “I didn’t know him,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about him.”

Dolly Parton (1978)
Dolly Parton (1978)

She was to babysit with her uncle’s son while his wife worked her shift as a waitress at the Shoney’s Big Boy restaurant on Harding Road. She told her sudden suitor that he could come over to her uncle’s house the next afternoon, while she babysat.

“He came over and we sat out in the yard and talked,” she said. “But I still wouldn’t go on a date with him for several days. When I finally did, the first place he took me the first night we went out was to his parents’ house, and that made me feel a lot better about him.”

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Almost exactly two years after she had met him on her first day in Nashville, Dolly Parton was married to Carl Dean [in 1966], now 28, a partner in his father’s small but busy asphalt paving company in Woodbine.

Dolly Parton and her husband
Young Dolly Parton and her husband Carl Dean (Photo courtesy restored by Click Americana)

Hungry years

The two intervening years were busy ones for the little hill-country blonde. They were often also hungry ones, she recalls.

“I stayed about six months with Uncle Bill, and then I got me an apartment of my own,” she said. “I couldn’t afford a car or a telephone, and,” she laughed, “’bout the only time I ever ate was when I went out on a date, and I didn’t go out on that many dates.”

She stopped laughing pretty quickly and looked down at her hands in her lap. “Well, actually, that was about the way it was, even though I was trying to make a joke out of it,” she said. “Lots of times, my refrigerator was just about empty, except for mustard or turnip greens — things you always keep.”

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Her activities did not pay her very much, but she had gotten consistently busier as time went by. She began recording demonstration records for songwriters to pitch to successful recording stars.

Dolly Parton Heartbreaker certified gold (1978)
Dolly Parton Heartbreaker certified gold (1978)

She was on a “draw,” writing songs for Combine Music for a weekly salary. She began making her own recordings for Monument Records, where executive producer Fred Foster took a keen interest in her ability. He found her a song called “Dumb Blonde.”

“‘Dumb Blonde’ was written by Curly Putnam, who wrote ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ and a lot of other great songs,” Dolly said. “Fred thought the song would be good for me because it was up-tempo, for one thing, and it didn’t really take a lot of singing. He figured it would make people forget about whether my voice was any good or not, and just listen to the song.”

Dolly Parton on the cover of TV Guide (1987)
Dolly Parton on the cover of TV Guide (1987)

Foster must have been correct. “Dumb Blonde” was her first really successful recording. She was working on Eddie Hill’s show on WLAC-TV — being paid out of Hill’s pocket rather than by the station because the Hill show was already over its budget.

“I was working and making a little money, but not very much considering all the things I was having to do with it, and trying to send a little money home when I could,” she said.

Unexpected call

One afternoon she received an unexpected telephone call from a country singer she had never met in her journeys up and down Music Row: Porter Wagoner, a slim Missourian who long has made fame and fortune selling country music fans patent medicine and heartbreak-and-honkytonk music.

Wagoner asked her if she could come by his office and talk business. Of course, she said she would be there as quickly as she could.

Miss Dolly and Porter Wagoner in dressing room at WSM-TV (1970)

“I didn’t know Porter, except for watchin’ his TV show every week there at home with the family — which every country family that can possibly pick it up does,” she said. She supposed Wagoner wanted to see her about one of her songs.

“I had songs out all over town trying to get them recorded, and Porter and Norma Jean — the girl singer with his show — had a couple of them. Somebody at Combine had told me Norma Jean liked one of them especially well. I figured they were callin’ me over there to tell me they were taking one of the songs, or maybe wanted to get me to make some changes in one of them, or something.”

That was not what Wagoner wanted. He told her that Norma Jean was getting married and leaving the Wagoner show to move back to Oklahoma, and Dolly Parton was under consideration for the job.

Dolly Parton on the Porter Wagoner show (1960s)

That first afternoon

One recent night at WSM-TV, where he and Dolly and the Wagonmasters were videotaping two more of their weekly shows, Porter Wagoner grinned as he remembered that first afternoon Miss Dolly visited his office.

“You tell him about… many hymns?” he asked Dolly, nodding toward the reporter. 

She blushed and shook her head. “No,” she said. “He asked the questions, and I just answered them.” Porter grinned wider.

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner (1968)

“We were talking about how she would fit into the show, you know,” he began, “and I asked her if she would mind wearing fairly conservative clothes because of the family type of show we try to do. Well, she said that was fine with her, and then I asked her if she knew many hymns.

“Well, she thought a minute, and then she said, ‘Minnie Hemms? No, I don’t believe I know her.’ We’d been talking about dresses and she thought Minnie Hemms was a seamstress.”

The very embarrassed Miss Dolly brought a hand up to her face, hung her head and smiled with a red face. “Then I caught it,” she said, “and I laughed and then started telling him all the hymns I knew, trying to cover it up if I could. I didn’t want him to think I was ignorant — at least not the first time he ever saw me.”

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton - We Found It album cover (1973)
Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – We Found It album cover (1973)
‘Nobody’s Fool’

Miss Dolly is about as dumb as that dumb blonde she sings of — a young lady who, according to the lyrics, “ain’t nobody’s fool.”

She writes nearly all of her own recordings, many of Wagoner’s and most of their duets. Thus, it is much more than her beauty that makes Miss Dolly valuable to the Porter Wagoner Show, the longest-running and most successful of Nashville syndicated country music television shows.

After four years on that show, Miss Dolly is moving toward a place among the female superstars of the business — women like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Her current recording of “Muleskinner Blues,” which is not unlikely to become a classic, was her first No. 1 song in the trade magazine charts. It is safe to bet there will be more.

Dolly Parton on the cover of Cashbox magazine (1980)
Dolly Parton on the cover of Cashbox magazine (1980)

Miss Dolly, meanwhile, wears her hair either incredibly high or incredibly long, and sometimes is seen in clothes that are at the very least gaudy — like a pink jumpsuit she wore on the Grand Ole Opry stage at last year’s Disc Jockey Convention. With high, gauzy pink collars that looked like wings, the suit made Miss Dolly look like an extremely well-developed moth.

Her off-the-cuff comments also are sometimes a little surprising; witness a recent Grammy presentation dinner in which she came to the rostrum with Wagoner to present an award and acknowledged the warm applause by making a familiar pitch for a sponsor of the Wagoner TV show: “Buy Cardui brand tablets, ladies!”

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But she seems to take herself remarkably unseriously, particularly for a country girl who has come so far so fast. Not long before the reporter left that interview that day, she seemed to touch on the reasons for that.

Vintage Dolly Parton pinball game from Bally (1979)
Vintage Dolly Parton pinball game from Bally (1979)
‘Awful lucky’

“I was tellin’ Porter the other day that I’m awful lucky to have got here and got into the business before the competition got as tough as it is now. There’s always been competition in the business, but when I started six years ago, it hadn’t really started to get hot yet, the way it is now.”

She seems to think of her success not so much as something she achieved herself but more as a gift from a lot of people… such people as her uncle Bill and Fred Foster, who really believed in her.

The reporter was home a half-hour after the interview, playing back the tape, when one of those Owepar uncles, Louie Owens, called back. “Uh, Dolly left me a note here to call you,” he said.

“She wanted me to — well, here’s what the note says,” Owens said. “‘Ask him to please be sure and put in that any success I’ve achieved in the last few years I owe to Porter Wagoner, who is a fine man and everything he appears to be.'”

All right. Whatever she says. Even if Porter does like to tell that story about Minnie Hemms.

The Essential Dolly Parton
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03/12/2024 12:50 am GMT

Dolly Parton through the years at Click Americana


Dolly for Shure microphones (1975)

Dolly for Shure microphones (1975)

Ms Dolly onstage & off in 1975

Dolly Parton in 1975

1970s: Dolly Parton – Here She Comes Again (1978)

Dolly Parton - Here She Comes Again - awards in 1978

ALSO SEE: Memories of these 70s perfumes will take you straight back in time

1980s: Dolly in 9 to 5 (1980)

Dolly in 9 to 5 (1980)

1980s: as Jake Farris in the Sylvester Stallone movie Rhinestone

Dolly Parton in Rhinestone (1984)

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1990s: Dolly in pink (1994)

Dolly Parton in 1994

200s: Dolly Parton in 2003
at the Fourth Annual "Women Rock! - Songs From The Movies" concert by Lifetime Television, Kodak Theater, Hollywood, CA 09-30-03
Dolly Parton at the Fourth Annual “Women Rock! – Songs From The Movies” concert in 2003 (S Bukley/Deposit Photos)

2010s: Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015)
at "Dolly Parton's Coat Of Many Colors" Premiere, Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, CA 12-02-15
Dolly Parton at “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” Premiere, Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, CA 12-02-15 (S Bukley/Deposit Photos)

2020s: Dolly Parton at the cademy of Country Music Awards (2022)
USA - 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards Arrivals - Las Vegas
Dolly Parton at the 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on March 7, 2022 (Jean Nelson/Deposit Photos)

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