Among the most iconic names not only in the country genre but across-the-board popular American music, Dolly Parton is just about universally regarded as a national treasure. She certainly ranks among the most famous exports of the Southern Appalachians, the spirit and culture of which she’s celebrated and championed throughout her career.
Here are nine facts about this legendary songstress:
Her Roots Run Deep in the Great Smoky Mountains
Dolly Parton was born in a one-room cabin in Pittman Center, Tennessee. Nestled within the northern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. From indelible songs such as “Coat of Many Colors” that celebrate her upbringing to the long-running success of her Pigeon Forge tourist attractions, the Smokies remain a fundamental part of Parton’s identity.
Johnny Cash Introduced Her When She First Appeared at the Grand Ole Opry
None other than the Man in Black himself introduced a 13-year-old Dolly Parton in her inaugural appearance at the Grande Ole Opry in 1959. She took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium to perform a George Jones cover, “You Gotta Be My Baby.”
“Jolene” Was Inspired by a Flirtatious Bank Clerk
A prolific and talented songwriter, Dolly Parton has penned more than a few immortal tunes. Nonetheless, none may be quite so enshrined as her 1973 hit “Jolene”. The idea behind the song came from a red-headed clerk at a local bank who made flirtatious overtures to Parton’s husband, Carl Dean.
The flirtation, Parton pointed out in a 2008 interview with National Public Radio, was pretty innocent and more of a running joke between Dean and her. It provided an emotional spark. However, for a potent song pleading to a potential rival not to steal the narrator’s lover “just because you can”. (Incidentally, Dolly Parton and Dean have been married for over half a century, having tied the knot in 1966.)
That bank clerk may have inspired the song’s narrative, but the name came from another redhead. A young fan of Parton’s named Jolene asked for the singer’s autograph back in the late 1960s. At the time Parton was becoming a household name through her appearances on The Porter Wagoner Show.
Parton Wrote Two of Her Greatest Songs on the Same Day
“Jolene” was written on the same day in 1973 that Parton composed “I Will Always Love You”. Another smash hit that’s more than proved its staying power over the decades. “Jolene” was released as a single on October 15, 1973, followed by “I Will Always Love You” on March 11th of the following year. Not long after the album both songs appeared on, Jolene, came out.
Dolly Parton’s version of “I Will Always Love You” was a chart-topper. Yet the defining version of the song came nearly 20 years later with Whitney Houston’s version for the 1992 film The Bodyguard. In which Houston starred with Kevin Costner. Costner was the one who suggested the song. Houston’s version became one of the biggest-selling pop singles of all time. In fact, The Bodyguard soundtrack still reigns as the most successful soundtrack album in history.
Elvis Wanted to Record “I Will Always Love You”
Shortly after Parton released “I Will Always Love You,” none other than Elvis Presley expressed a keen interest in recording the song. Dolly Parton was thrilled by the prospect. But that excitement soured after Presley’s controversial manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told her it would be expected that they receive half the publishing rights to the song. Parton (admirably) balked at this, and thus the Elvis recording never happened.
More than a few friends of Parton questioned her decision. Nevertheless, the enduring success of “I Will Always Love You” ended up more than compensating for the loss of a rendition by the King of Rock-’n-Roll. “Then when Whitney’s version came out,” Parton joked in an interview for CMT Greatest Moments, “I made enough money to buy Graceland.”
Dolly Parton is Proficient in Multiple Instruments
Dolly Parton credits the rich musical culture of her family with her working skill on numerous instruments. Those range from acoustic and electric guitar to the dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, fiddle, piano, and saxophone.
With typical modesty, she told Vogue in 2016, “Oh, I play some of everything. I ain’t that good at none of it, but I try to sell it. I really try to lay into it.”
Fasting is Often Part of Her Songwriting Process
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Dolly Parton revealed some of her songwriting habits. She said she frequently fasts before a writing session. Which results in “a clean, spiritual frame of mind and opens [her] up to inspiration”. Parton says that writer’s block has never really been a problem for her. Instead, it brings an impressive stockpile of partly written songs, melody fragments, and potential titles to these sessions.
Parton said her principal instrument to write songs on is the guitar. Though it all depends on the style of the tune. “If I’m writing mountain songs,” she said. “I like to play mountain instruments, whether it’s the dulcimer, the autoharp, or the banjo […]”.
Parton is One of the Most Awarded Figures in American Music
Parton has landed no fewer than 11 Grammy Awards over the years, including a 2011 statue for Lifetime Achievement. That’s on top of dozens of other Grammy nominations. Her song “9 to 5,” written for the eponymous 1980 film in which she co-starred with Lily Tomlin and Jane Tonda, nabbed not only two Grammys, but also an Academy Award nomination. (Dolly Parton herself earned a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for her performance in 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, co-starring Burt Reynolds.)
Among her many recognitions, Parton received the National Medal of Arts in 2005, and then the Kennedy Center Honors the following year. She’s been inducted not only into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2005) but also, in 2022, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She Has a Rich Legacy Outside of Music & Acting
Dolly Parton has also earned plenty of accolades for her tireless work promoting children’s literacy through the Dollywood Foundation. Including its initiative Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The Dollywood Foundation has also supported many other causes, from cancer and HIV/AIDS treatments to the COVID-19 vaccine. Parton was also instrumental in fundraising for relief efforts following the 2016 wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Besides those worthy philanthropic and charitable efforts, Parton is also renowned for her Dollywood Company. It oversees the Dollywood amusement parks as well as the Splash Country waterpark, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and other attractions. The heart of these operations remains Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Parton’s Smoky Mountain birthplace.