Celebrating Dolly Parton, the Queen of Country

Looking back at the monumental career and philanthropy of Dolly Parton, who celebrated her 75th birthday this week.

Few artists have navigated the music world as adeptly and gracefully as country music icon and philanthropist, Dolly Parton.

Coming from humble beginnings, Parton has stayed true to her passion for music and her keen mind for business throughout her career. As a result, she’s enjoyed both commercial and critical success, resulting in millions of record sales, 50 Grammy nominations, and the 2005 National Medal of Arts, the highest honor of excellence in the arts by the U.S. government. Her enormous talent is matched only by her kindness and capacity to give.

She may only be 5 foot 2 inches but Dolly Parton, who turned 75 this year, is a larger-than-life, walking, talking, singing ray of sunshine, whose curiosity set the stage for the big life she dreamed of.

Click the audio player above to hear Ann Delisi’s expansive tribute to Dolly Parton

A Songwriter From the Start

Born on January 19, 1946 in Pittman Center, Tennessee, Dolly Parton was the fourth out of 12 siblings. She described her family as “dirt poor” and says they lived in a one-bedroom cabin. Despite this adversity, Dolly’s father instilled a level of business-minded grit in her that has served her throughout her career, while her mother bestowed her love of music onto a young Dolly Parton.

Dolly began writing songs at a young age. Her first performances were in the church, and she has maintained her deep religious faith throughout the course of her life. At the age of 10, she recorded “Puppy Love” and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. Dolly continued her studies and graduated from Severe County High School in 1964. She moved to Nashville the very next day to pursue her career in music.

Country Girl At Heart

Dolly got her start in the music business as a songwriter for other artists. Within two years of beginning her career, her songs made their way as top ten hits.

The burgeoning performer wanted to sing country music, but her record label felt adamant about keeping her in pop music. The label continued to resist until Dolly appeared as an uncredited backup singer on her own composition, “Put it off Until Tomorrow,” defying her label’s direction to stick to pop. The song became a hit on the country charts, establishing Dolly as a country artist.

Soon after, Dolly Parton met her soon to be husband, Carl Thomas Dean. Their relationship has fascinated the media and her fans for decades, as Dean largely stays out of the limelight, but it works for them since they are still married.

Dolly Makes It Big

Dolly released her debut album, “Hello, I’m Dolly,” in September, 1967. Her first country single from her debut album was the song “Dumb Blonde,” written by Curly Putnam. Her big, blonde hair, curvaceous figure, lavish makeup and flashy clothes may have created an image of a “dumb blonde,” but she was anything but.

Following her successful debut album launch, Dolly signed with Porter Wagoner at his label, RCA Victor. The two released their first duet, “The Last Thing On My Mind” in 1967, launching a 6-year streak on the top 10 songs for the duo. Parton went on to record the Jimmy Rogers song “Mule Skinner Blues,” which became another top 10 hit. Following the success of “Mule Skinner Blues,” Dolly scored her first number one country hit as a solo artist, “Joshua.”

While collaborating with Porter Wagoner, Dolly recorded “Jolene,” a timeless song that’s on Rolling Stones’ Top 500 Songs of All Time and has been covered by numerous artists, including The White Stripes, Olivia Newton-John, and Dolly Parton’s Goddaughter, Miley Cyrus.

The Enduring Legacy of “I Will Always Love You”

After seven years of performing and recording with him, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner parted ways in the mid-1970s. As a parting gesture, Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” arguably the most monumental and successful piece of work of Parton’s career.

Soon after she released the song in 1974, it became a hit. Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, expressed interest in Elvis record the song on the condition that they get half of the publishing. Dolly trusted her business instincts and declined the offer, retaining her full publishing rights. 

That turned out to be one of the best business decisions she ever made. In 1992, Whitney Houston turned the cover of the track on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack into one of her most memorable vocal performances. Her version went on to become internationally-acclaimed and produced a multi-million-dollar profit for Dolly.

Heart As Big As Her Hair

Dolly continued to blossom in her entertainment career, stepping back into the world of pop music with “Here You Come Again,” and trying her hand at acting in 1980’s film 9 to 5.

In spite of her non-stop career, Dolly has still found the time and energy to give back to those less fortunate than herself, making good on a promise she made in 1977 to make millions of dollars and start initiatives that would create opportunities for others.

She started a non-profit organization, the Dollywood Foundation, dedicated to providing scholarships and supporting numerous non-profit organizations to improve the quality of life for children in need. Along with Dollywood Foundation, Parton created Dollywood – a tourist site and amusement park based in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee which employes 4,000 people and has received ample recognition for how the part operates. Dolly also founded the Imagination Library in 1995, with the goal of delivering one million books per month to schools across the United States.

Dolly has raised and donated millions of dollars for numerous charities, including the Red Cross, HIV/AIDS-related charities and for cancer research. In 2016, she hosted a telethon to raise $9 million for the victims of the Great Smokey Mountain Wildfires.

Most recently, Dolly was celebrated for donating $1 million for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine research. Throughout the pandemic, Dolly engaged with children worldwide on YouTube by reading bedtime stories.

Her 75 years of life is a testament to the hope and optimism she instills in all of us.

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  • Ann Delisi
    Ann Delisi hosts Essential Music, the Essential Conversations podcast series and the Essential Cooking broadcast and podcast. Born and raised in the Motor City, Ann is a broadcaster, interviewer, producer, music host, storyteller and proud Detroiter.