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Dolly Parton's Humble Roots Explain Her Down-Home Charm

Updated November 20, 2019 15.8k views16 items

On the title track to her 43rd studio album, Backwoods Barbie, Dolly Parton sings:

I'm just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair.

Don't be fooled by thinkin' that the goods are not all there.

Don't let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that 

I'm as shallow as I look 'cause I run true and deep.

Truer words may never have ever been uttered in music, and when you learn how Parton grew up, you'll appreciate how her humble backwoods beginnings were the foundation for a life of musical genius and generosity. Parton has never made a secret of her hardscrabble roots. She's always lovingly referred to herself as a hillbilly, and some of her most famous songs were directly inspired by growing up poor in the American South.

While many celebrities distance themselves from their meager origins once fame comes knocking, the beloved Smoky Mountain Songbird has done the exact opposite. Parton's family, friends, and childhood have all played pivotal roles in her success - she's made sure of that.

  • Her Father Was Illiterate

    Lee Parton was initially a sharecropper before earning money to purchase the Locust Ridge property, after which he farmed his own land. He could neither read nor write. Dolly's father's illiteracy compelled her to start Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a charity that gifts children one free book a month until they enter kindergarten.

    Of the project, she said: "My daddy couldn't read and write, but daddy was so smart, he could just do numbers in his head... When I decided what I was going to do for a great charity, then I thought well I'm gonna do this: to get books in the hands of children, because if you can learn to read, if you can read, you can self-educate yourself."

    Her father sacrificed a lot for his family, beyond just his education. The family was so poor that he used to save a portion of his lunch to share with his kids later that night. They called it "Daddy's dinner bucket."

  • She Had A Baby Brother Who Died At 4 Days Old

    One of the most profound heartbreaks Parton experienced as a child was the death of her 4-day-old baby brother when she was 9. "My mother, through the years, when we were born, since there were so many of us, used to say, 'This one gonna be you[r] baby,'" Parton explained. "That just meant that you got to take extra care of it. You have got to get up with it at night and rock it back and forth."

    This brother was the one her mother had "given" her. "So, there is a lot of heartache and stuff that goes on with that," Parton admitted in 2015.

  • She Wrote Her First Song At Age 5

    Photo: Curtis Hilbun / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    At the ripe old age of 5, Parton wrote her first song. It was called "Little Tiny Tasseltop," an homage to her corncob doll. Since Parton wasn't old enough to write, her mother helped her compose the tune, and Parton performed it on the front porch.

    She remembers singing into a tin can mounted on a tobacco stick - her version of a microphone.

  • Her First Public Performance Was At Age 6

    Parton's first audience was her grandfather's church congregation; she was 6 years old. Hymns and gospel music have long been part of Parton's repertoire as an adult, too, and she's been quite outspoken about her spiritual faith and beliefs.

    In one interview, she explained, "I ask God every day to lead me, guide me and direct me, to take the wrong people out of my life, put the right people in. As I get older, I'm even stronger in my faith."