The untold truth of Dolly Parton

Who doesn't love Dolly Parton? After all, there are few things more inspiring than a real life rags-to-riches story, and country singer Dolly Parton certainly qualifies (and then some). Parton fought her way out of poverty to become a truly iconic entertainer. She's got charm for days and a distinctive voice to boot, making her a sought-after interview subject. Parton's life has been so extraordinary, in fact, that it has been made into television movies and even serves as material for a university thesis course. Intrigued? Keep reading to find out more about this twangy legend. 

Dolly Parton's family was so poor that peeing the bed was almost a luxury

For all of Dolly Parton's success, she doesn't shy away from discussing her humble roots. As one of 12 kids who grew up in rural Tennessee in a one-room shack, the singer is no stranger to hard knocks. Her family was what you might call "dirt poor," but Parton didn't mind. 

"The kids peed on me every night. We slept three and four in the bed. I would wash every night. And as soon as I go to bed, the kids would wet on me and I'd have to get up in the morning and do the same thing," she said in a rare 1978 Playboy interview unearthed by the animated PBS series Blank on Blank (via Wide Open Country). 

When asked whether or not she would get up and change the sheets in the middle of the night, Parton responded with her trademark candor, "No, that was the only warm thing we knew in the winter time. That was almost a pleasure to get peed on because it was so cold. Lord. It was as cold in the room as it was outside. We'd bundle up to go to bed."

Dolly Parton founded her book charity in honor of her dad

Dolly Parton loves both books and children so much that the country superstar founded a charity uniting her two passions. Founded in 1995, the Imagination Library is a nonprofit organization created to foster children's love of reading. Each month, the program mails books directly to the homes of preschool children and their families, regardless of the family's income. It wasn't just Parton's love of reading that inspired the program, though — she founded the Imagination Library in part to honor her father. 

"I started the Imagination Library over twenty years ago in honor of my father, who was never able to read or write. So my dad got to help me with it, and he felt very proud for me to be doing that and to involve him in it," she told Your Tango. "He got to live long enough to see it doing well. He got a kick out of people calling me the book lady."

Dolly Parton's dog saved her life in an unexpected way

Dolly Parton's inspiring rise to success is the focus of a 2017 book titled Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton. While the tome wasn't technically penned by Parton, the content does come straight from her mouth — the book is a collection of interviews with the singer spanning back over five decades. Perhaps the most shocking revelation revisited was the story Parton shared about a dog named Popeye who was her canine companion in the early '80s.

In one of the book's many interviews, readers learn that Parton struggled with severe depression after starring and having an "affair of the heart" with Burt Reynolds in 1982's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It was during these dark days that Parton actually contemplated suicide, even going so far as to pick up her handgun in preparation. 

Fortunately, her dog Popeye had other plans. As he ran up the stairs towards her, Parton had a revelation. "I put the gun down. Then I prayed. I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God," she said (via People).

There is a history course named after Dolly Parton

If you've ever marveled over Dolly Parton's nearly unbelievable past, you're not alone. In fact, her life is so fascinating that it has officially been integrated into the University of Tennessee's curriculum

"I think there are some stereotypes associated with the area, especially in rural Appalachia," Dr. Lynn Sacco, the associate professor who teaches the course "Dolly's America," explained to The New York Times. "I think it's great that we have a figure like Dolly Parton who comes from the area and is able to shed light on it and be an ambassador." 

The course is no joke either. It's a thesis seminar designed for history students enrolled in the honors program. As for Parton, she seems pretty flattered by the course, having tweeted of it, "From the girl voted in High School 'least likely to succeed' this sure is a blessing!"

Dolly Parton patterned her style on the town tramp

You know how the saying goes: one person's trash is another person's treasure. And, in Dolly Parton's case, one town's tramp is another woman's style icon. Discussing her cameo in her TV movie Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, Parton explained that playing the part of the "Painted Lady" came naturally to her. 

"This lady was the town tramp and I thought she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen when we were little kids," Parton told The New York Times, adding, "She's the lady that I actually patterned myself after because she left an impression." It wasn't until much later, Parton admits, that she learned the woman was a local prostitute.

A fan once left a (real!) baby in a box on Dolly Parton's porch

If you walk up to any celebrity and ask them about a crazy fan encounter, they'll undoubtedly have a story or two to tell. But, arguably, none have a tale quite as wild as Dolly Parton does. When asked to share her most bizarre fan experience with Act Two magazine, the country icon revealed a shocking truth. 

"I have a farm in Nashville and one day in the '60s we came home and there was a box near our gate with a baby in it. I had just recorded the song 'Jolene' and the note said, 'Her name is Jolene. I named her after you, so please keep her.'" Yes, y'all, you read that right — a real human baby! So how did Parton respond? "I called child services," she told Act Two, laughing. "Immediately!"

Dolly Parton's all about that camper life

When you think about a living legend like Dolly Parton, it's easy to imagine her life is non-stop glitz and glamour. However, Parton's truth is that she came from simple beginnings, and she likes to enjoy a more simple way of life from time to time. 

"My husband and I have a camper," she told Southern Living. "We travel around all the time. Every weekend. Usually a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday." Parton revealed that she and her husband, Carl Dean, particularly like to explore tiny towns that are often overlooked by others. 

"All the little places that are just out of the way and have a little history," she described them. "Or are just exceptionally beautiful." Of course, Parton's camper is not to be confused with her other favorite mode of transportation: her now-retired tour bus. Affectionately dubbed the Gypsy Wagon, the bus is permanently parked at Parton's Tennessee amusement park, Dollywood

Dolly Parton stands by goddaughter Miley Cyrus' artistic vision

Can you imagine having Dolly Parton as a godmother? Miley Cyrus doesn't have to because the pop star has had the pleasure of having Parton in that role for as long as she can remember. And in case you had any doubt, Parton is every bit as cool of a godmother as you might imagine. When asked about Cyrus' wild ways over the last few years, Parton didn't flinch. 

"She knows what she's doing. She was very proud of the work she did as Hannah Montana, but people were gonna leave her there forever. And she was just smotherin' and chokin' in it. So she felt she had to do something completely drastic. And she did," Parton told Time. Besides, she pointed out, "I did it my way, so why can't she do it her way?"

Dolly Parton's been married to her husband for over 50 years

With news of another celebrity split breaking practically every day, it's always refreshing to hear about a famous couple who appears to have found their happily ever after. Enter Dolly Parton, who married husband Carl Dean when she was just 20 and he was 23. Today, they are still going strong. 

"Not everyone is lucky enough to be with someone for 50 years, but I have been. He has been the love of my life and the life of my love," she told People. According to Parton, the couple works largely because they are so different. "They say that opposites attract, and it's true," she said in another interview with People. "We're completely opposite, but that's what makes it fun. I never know what he's gonna say or do. He's always surprising me." Parton and Dean, who've never had children, wed in 1966.

Dolly Parton can play at least eight instruments

Dolly Parton's killer pipes aren't the only instrument she has mastered. After watching Parton perform, Vogue writer Alex Frank pointed out that Parton played a variety of instruments during her set: the dulcimer, banjo, guitar, piano, recorder, and saxophone. 

When asked about her musical dexterity, Parton replied modestly, "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." According to Parton, it would have been stranger in her household if she hadn't picked up so many instruments. "Well, my family's very musical, and everybody played musical instruments, so we just grabbed up anything and tried to play," she said.

Roger Ebert once said he thought Dolly Parton had "healing powers"

On staff with the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert attended a press screening in the 1980 for the film Nine to Five starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. In 2008, Ebert updated his original review to add a note about Parton that was perhaps unlike any addendum he'd ever made. 

"Here's what I remember," he wrote on his website. "I had a one-on-one interview with Parton in a hotel suite. As we spoke, I found myself enveloped by her presence. This had nothing to do with sex appeal. Far from it. It was as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling." Ebert then admits that the following day, he told his longtime critiquing partner Siskel of Parton, "I almost felt like she had healing powers." Talk about a glowing review!

Dolly Parton likes to spend time in cemeteries

Dolly Parton may look like an angelic creature, but that doesn't mean the singer is without certain dark proclivities. It was during a 1977 interview that Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo learned this firsthand. Driving around trying to find a quiet location to conduct their interview, Parton and Flippo passed by a graveyard — which Parton suggested could be the perfect spot. Incredulous, Flippo asked if Parton was serious. 

"Yeah, I love cemeteries, they're so quiet," she told him. "You know, people are dying to get into 'em. Really, I write in cemeteries a lot; nobody bothers you there." There's an interesting morsel to mull over the next time you listen to one of Parton's songs.

This famous Dolly Parton love ballad was inspired by the end of a business relationship

Perhaps one of Dolly Parton's most recognizable songs, "I Will Always Love You" has solidified itself as an iconic piece of pop culture history with a legacy that will certainly last for decades to come. However, while seemingly inspired by the end of a romantic relationship, "I Will Always Love You" was actually written about the end of a business relationship. 

As Parton explained to The Tennessean, in 1973, it became clear that it was time for her to move on from The Porter Wagoner Show. Parton told the publication that she asked herself, "How am I gonna make [Wagoner] understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go?" The answer, of course, was to do what she did best: write a song. 

According to Parton, Wagoner was immediately taken with the ballad. "When I finished [playing it for him], he said, 'Well, hell! If you feel that strong about it, just go on — providing I get to produce that record because that's the best song you ever wrote,'" the songstress revealed to The Tennessean

Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" cover came as a surprise to Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton's song "I Will Always Love You" became a household hit in 1992 with the release of The Bodyguard and Whitney Houston's performance of the song in it. Interestingly, though, Parton didn't even realize the song made it into the movie. Apparently, Kevin Costner and his secretary were big fans of Parton's version, so she sent a copy out to L.A. When she didn't hear back, she assumed they weren't using it, until she heard it streaming out of her speakers.

"I was on my way home and I turned the radio on, and all of a sudden I heard that acapella part and I was like 'Wooo! What's that?' By the time it dawned on me what I was hearing when she went into that chorus I had to stop the car because I almost wrecked. I thought my heart was going to just bust right out of my body. It was the most powerful feeling that I've ever had 'cause it was such a shock and it was so great and she sang it so good that I was just overwhelmed," Parton told Axs.

Adele is Dolly Parton's makeup muse

While Dolly Parton's inspiration when she was younger was the town trollop, she models her makeup style these days on a much more chic muse. She even references her modern day muse in the song "Head Over High Heels" with the lyric "painting my eyes like Adele." 

Elaborating on her emulation, Parton told BBC, "Everyone loves Adele. With all my little nieces, it's all 'Adele this' and 'Adele that!' And I love how she does her makeup, and so I'm always saying to my little nieces, 'can you fix my eyes like Adele?'" 

Although Adele hasn't specifically addressed being featured in Parton's song, her Adele: Live at the Royal Albert Hall DVD contains a behind-the-scenes interview with the 21 singer, during which she admits of Parton, "I f***ing love her."

There's a reason Dolly Parton always wears long sleeves

For many years, fans speculated that Dolly Parton's decision to wear long sleeves had to mean she was hiding tattoos. Well, as it turns out, those fans weren't exactly wrong. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Parton confirmed that she is indeed inked. "I don't really like to make a big to-do of [the tattoos] because people make such a big damn deal over every little thing," she told the publication.

Parton revealed to Vanity Fair why she started getting tattoos, stating she has "a tendency to have keloid scar tissue," which is faintly purple in color and something she knew she wouldn't be able to get rid of. "I'm not trying to make some big, bold statement," she explained. Rather, she's just trying to cover her scars. Although Parton isn't planning to show off her "few" tattoos any time soon, she did describe them all as being pastel. Flowers, perhaps? Unicorns? We can only imagine.

Dolly Parton describes her earliest works as "sad a** songs"

In an interview with Radiolab host Jad Abumrad for the nine-part podcast series Dolly Parton's America, Dolly Parton explained her philosophy on songwriting. "As a writer, you want to come up ... you want to come up with the really good lines if you're a really good songwriter," Parton told Abumrad. When asked where she got the inspiration for her song "A Gamble Either Way," which discusses the incredibly troubled life of a young girl, Parton replied, "That was really, really early on in those early, early days." She continued, "Oh, I used to write a lot of sad a** songs." 

As revealed in Dolly Parton's America, a lot of Parton's earlier songs focus on women being treated badly by men and the consequences of these toxic relationships. In Parton's 1967 song "The Bridge," the singer tells the story of a pregnant woman who decides to end her life on the same bridge where she first fell for the man whose baby she's carrying. Who knew bright and bubbly Dolly Parton could be so dark?

Dolly Parton has a complicated relationship with feminism

Dolly Parton has been widely hailed by the feminist movement as a feminist icon, due largely to her progressive songwriting (see her song "Dumb Blonde"), as well the way she refuses to let people's preconceived notions negatively affect her self-confidence or her career. However, while she may seemingly walk the walk of a feminist, Parton will be the first to tell you that she doesn't label herself as one. 

When asked by Jad Abumrad for Dolly Parton's America if she thinks of herself as a feminist, Parton swiftly replied, "No, I do not." The country music legend continued, explaining her complicated relationship with the word "feminist." She told Abumrad, "I do believe in making a point and making it well. I don't believe in crucifying a whole group just because a few people have made mistakes." Parton added, "To me when you say just the word 'feminist" is like, 'I hate all men.'"

Audiences weren't initially impressed by Dolly Parton

There's no question that Dolly Parton is one of the most beloved and celebrated musicians of her generation. However, when the star got her first big break, audiences were quite hesitant to accept the blonde-haired songstress as a serious singer-songwriter. As explained on Dolly Parton's America, in 1967, Parton — then in her early 20s — was invited by legendary country music entertainer Porter Wagoner to join his weekly syndicated television show, aptly titled The Porter Wagoner Show. Parton was hired to replace singer Norma Jean, who had long been the staple female singer on Wagoner's show — and fans weren't happy to see Parton filling her shoes.

For her first performance on The Porter Wagoner Show, Parton sang "Dumb Blonde." However, her singing voice and physical appearance — both stark differences to those of Norma Jean — didn't sit well with Wagoner's fan base. In fact, audiences even booed Parton following her Porter Wagoner Show debut. According to Dolly Parton's America, the backlash was so intense that Wagoner himself felt the need to address his audience directly and ask them to give Parton a fair chance. Fortunately, they eventually did.

Dolly Parton has never been on any of the rides at Dollywood

Whether or not you fancy yourself a fan of Dolly Parton, you've likely heard about the country artist's theme park, Dollywood. Located in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the park was born from Parton's partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, owners of the Silver Dollar City Tennessee amusement park that would eventually become Dollywood. 

According to Dollywood's website, the theme park is home to "nine amazing roller coasters." However, as Parton revealed in a 2019 interview with The New York Times, she's never gone for a ride on a Dollywood coaster herself. "I don't ride the rides. I never have," the songstress explained to the publication. She continued, "I have a tendency to get motion sickness. Also, I'm a little bit chicken. With all my hair I got so much to lose, like my wig or my shoes."  

Joked Parton, "I don't like to get messed up. I'm gonna have some handsome man mess it up, I don't want some ride doing it."

Dolly Parton knows people make fun of her... but the joke's on them

People have been making jokes at Dolly Parton's expense for as long as she's been famous. Usually these jokes concern her physical appearance — namely, the size of her chest. However, it's rare that Parton allows such comments to get under her skin. Instead, the songstress has been known to lean into the teasing, often doubling down on the jokes that poke fun of the way she presents herself. 

"I know what they're thinking," Parton told Jad Abumrad on Dolly Parton's America. She continued, "So, I'd rather say it before they do. And then we get that off our chest, so to speak, right up front."

In a 1977 interview with Parton, Barbara Walters asked the songstress if people making fun of her made her feel like "a joke." Parton, in a clip that has since gone viral, swiftly responded, "All these years, the people have thought the joke was on me, but it's actually been on the public." She continued, telling Walters, "I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle around with makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself."