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Dolly Parton has spent over 60 years making hit records and blockbuster movies but fame hasn’t tarnished this country gal’s heart of gold. Known for uniting fans with humor, humility and hope, Dolly Parton is a real-deal national treasure with global appeal!
Ingrid Andress is a 4x Grammy nominated country music singer-songwriter. She appeared on NBC’s the Sing-Off in 2010 and began collaborating on songs with Alicia Keys, Sam Hunt, Charli XCX, and more. She uses music to process emotions and loves to experiment with new sounds. Her album Lady Like became one of Billboard’s Top 10 Best Country Albums of the year in 2020.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Mary Bergstrom and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Ingrid Andress. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|Ten-year-old Dolly held the microphone tightly in her hand. She was used to singing in church. But this was different. This was Dolly’s first time on the radio! In the studio, the air felt electric. Dolly gulped, knowing folks from all over Tennessee would be tuning in.
On cue, her uncle strummed the guitar just like they’d practiced. As she moved to the rhythm, the stars on the red vest her mama made refracted the light.
And when Dolly sang into a real microphone – woo wee did her heart race. Her voice sounded bigger and more important than ever! Dolly couldn’t help breaking into a huge grin, showing off her dimples and sparkling blue eyes. As she finished her song, her cheeks flushed red as cherries.
For the first time, Dolly knew who she really was. Turning to her uncle, Dolly said. “I’m going to be a star ain’t I?”
|I’m Ingrid Andress. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Dolly Parton: country music singer, songwriter, actress, and honest-to-goodness national treasure who has been making the world a better place for over 60 years with her unique blend of humor, humility, and hope.
|Life didn’t start out easy for little Dolly Rebecca Parton. For one thing, she was born the 4th of 12 kids, six boys and six girls. Her daddy was a tobacco farmer and her mama stayed home with the kids.
They didn’t have electricity or running water in their 3-room Tennessee mountain home, but they had a porch bathed in afternoon sunlight, and fresh evening air that danced with fireflies.
And, there was music! Every Saturday night, Dolly’s family gathered ‘round the battery operated radio and tuned in to the live show at the Grand Ole Opry, the biggest stage in country music. In the silence of the countryside, the broadcast seemed like a whole other world! Swinging a tin can like a microphone, Dolly imagined she was on that famous stage too.
Dolly loved singing in church. And she even wrote down ideas to turn into her own songs. But being on the radio seemed like a wild dream. Especially when life was so busy at home. Dolly’s mama was pregnant again and had promised that this baby would be Dolly’s to care for. She could hardly wait! Dolly watched her mama’s belly get bigger knowing that pretty soon, she’d be singing lullabies and cuddling with a new brother or sister.
But tragically, Dolly’s little brother Larry died just a few days after he was born, and the Parton house turned upside down with grief.
It took a long time for Dolly’s family to find joy again. They had to figure out how to pick up the pieces together. One day, as Dolly hummed a tune, she noticed the sun leaking into their home; the air growing a wee bit lighter. Gradually, they learned how to live with their grief.
Dolly began to see how music was a way for her to process some of her hardest emotions. When she sang, she could truly open up her heart and let it all out.
Which leads us back to that day in the radio studio, with Dolly crooning next to her uncle, charming everyone who was listening. After their radio debut, Dolly and her uncle started getting more gigs. Driving from one town to the next, her uncle would tap on the steering wheel while Dolly belted out lyrics. Singing and joking with the windows down, they had a wonderful time.
Then, when Dolly was 13 years old, they were invited to play at the one and only Grand Ole Opry — that same stage that once seemed so far away!
That night, legendary country musician Johnny Cash introduced Dolly to the crowd. As she sang, she conjured memories of home – butterflies dancing in the field, rainbows blooming in the sky, and the little baby brother who would’ve been hers. She was proud of her roots and her voice quivered with emotion.
After three encores, Dolly knew that the stage would be her second home. That night, she found a way to share her whole life – the good and the bad, the triumphant and the tough.
|In 1964, just one day after she graduated high school, Dolly left home to become a star. As the bus ambled from country roads to city streets, Dolly felt larger-than-life.
But when she exited the bus in Nashville, Dolly was shocked. Cars whizzed, horns honked, and men stared. Suddenly, 5 foot tall Dolly felt small again. There was no time to lose though. She knew she had to push through her worries and get to work. So, Dolly picked up a suitcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. She blew back her blonde curls and set out to make her way.
Now, success didn’t come overnight. Dolly toiled away as a secretary to pay the bills, and often didn’t have enough money to even buy food. But as she likes to say, “if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain!”
Despite all the hardship, there was still magic in those early days – like when she met Carl Dean in front of the Wishy Washy laundromat. Handsome in his big ol’ truck, she was smitten and he was bowled over. It didn’t take long for him to propose marriage and for her to say yes.
Success in love came quick but her career took time. Some people said Dolly was too pretty to be taken seriously — which was a laugh because she was whip smart. Dolly decided to have fun with her looks and really get people’s attention.
She started wearing big blonde wigs and put on a lot of makeup. She chose clothing that emphasized her curvy body and, in 1966, she released the song “Dumb Blonde” about being underestimated for her good looks. “Dumb Blonde” became Dolly’s first song to hit the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart.
The next year, in 1967, she had two windfalls. First she released her first album and then she landed a job as the girl singer on the #1 country music TV show. Back in those days, country music stars were mainly men – and it was almost exclusively men calling the shots. Dolly couldn’t believe her luck. This was one of the best jobs a female singer could get!
|By 1973, Dolly had been a part of 22 albums and spent 7 years on TV. More and more though, she was getting fed up with her job on the show. She felt like she was being used just to make the host look good. Dolly was so much more than just big hair and a pretty face. She deserved to be her own boss!
One day, in the wee hours of the morning, as the fire crackled in the fireplace, Dolly sat down on the sofa and pulled a guitar close. In the other room, her husband Carl was sleeping. No surprise, it was 3 am!
Dolly never needed much sleep. She took every opportunity to write. Always scribbling ideas on napkins and bills, Dolly had a lot to say! And her lyrics were deep. Emotions like shame, depression, and guilt were rarely talked about. But Dolly wanted people to know they weren’t alone having these feelings.
This was one of many reasons fans adored her! With Dolly’s lyrics to guide them, they never felt alone.
Maybe there was some magic in the air that early morning, or some secret rhythm in the spark of the fire. But in just a few hours, while everyone else slumbered, Dolly wrote two songs that would change her life dramatically.
One song, “Jolene,” was about jealousy. It quickly became a hit and inspired artists all over the world to play their own versions of its catchy tune.
The other song was called “I Will Always Love You.”
It was her way of saying goodbye to her powerful boss at the TV show. The lyrics were heartbreakers,
Oh I do wish you joy
And I wish you happiness
But above all this
I wish you love
As the sun came up, Dolly looked out the window and prayed her words would help him understand that she needed to leave.
The next year was 1974. Both songs were released on the same album. The song “Jolene” reached #1 on the country music charts and “I Will Always Love You” helped grant Dolly’s wish. Because of that song, her boss gave his blessing for her to leave the show. Dolly was finally free to strike out on her own!
|Little did Dolly know what surprises her creative freedom would bring. In the 1970s, she put out 16 more albums on her own and in 1980, Dolly was invited to take a trip from Nashville – to Hollywood!
Dolly was asked to play one of the lead roles in an upcoming movie called “9 to 5”. “9 to 5” was a comedy about three bold women getting back at a boss who treated them unfairly. Dolly took the part on one condition – as long as she could write the theme song. This would turn out to be a smart bargain.
Dolly loved joking with her co-stars and having her ideas heard. Life felt extra sunny in Hollywood. One day, on set, Dolly tapped her long nails against each other. The sound reminded her of something – a typewriter! And just like that, Dolly had the start of a very catchy theme song.
Dolly’s debut in 9 to 5 earned her nominations for singing, songwriting, and acting! With 13 more films to come, her trophy case would fill to the brim.
|In 1986, Dolly turned her focus to giving back. She knew first-hand how tough life could be and was determined to bring joy to those in need. First, she helped build a theme park called Dollywood. The park brought tourists, jobs, and fun to the Smoky Mountains. Dolly was tickled!
Then, in 1995, inspired by her daddy’s inability to read and write, she set up the Imagination Library to encourage a love of reading and give out free books to kids. The library keeps growing and donates two million books a month globally!
As Dolly has gotten older, she only gets more fabulous and creative. She makes music, movies, and magic for old and new fans alike. She’s won just about every award a performer can get and is the first artist to have hits on the Hot Country Songs Chart in each decade since the 1960s.
She was even inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
Dolly also makes sure to speak out for causes that feel important to her, like gender equality and gay rights. She wants everyone to feel loved and respected. And it shows — wherever she goes, Dolly has a dedicated and diverse fan base that would follow her to the moon. For them, there is just one word that means singer, songwriter, actor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, poet, and golden-hearted optimist.
Woo wee! You guessed it. It’s…Dolly!