Early life and career
Dolly Rebecca Parton was born January 19, 1946, in a one-room cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center, Tennessee; a very small community located in Sevier County in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Dolly Parton went to Sevier County High School in Sevierville, Tennessee. She is the fourth of twelve children born to Avie Lee Caroline (née Owens; 1923–2003) and Robert Lee Parton Sr. (1921–2000). Her siblings include Stella Parton, Randy Parton, and Rachel Dennison. Mr. Parton (known as "Lee") worked in the mountains of east Tennessee, first as a sharecropper, and later tending his own small farm and acreage. He also worked temporary side jobs to make ends meet. He could neither read nor write. Despite his lack of formal education, Parton has said that he was one of the smartest people she has known. Avie Lee was homemaker for the large family. Her eleven pregnancies (the tenth pregnancy being twins) in twenty years made her a mother of twelve at thirty five years of age. Often in poor health, she still managed to keep house and entertain her children with songs and tales of mountain folklore. Parton has long credited her father for her business savvy, and her mother's family for her musical abilities.
While she was still very young, Dolly Parton's parents moved their growing family to a farm on nearby Locust Ridge. Most of Parton's cherished memories of youth happened while living there, and it was also the place for which she was inspired to write the song, "My Tennessee Mountain Home" in the 1970s. Parton would buy back the Locust Ridge property in the 1980s.
Dolly Parton's middle name comes from her maternal great-great grandmother, Rebecca (Dunn) Whitted. She has described her family as being "dirt poor." Parton's father paid the doctor who helped deliver her with a bag of cornmeal. She outlined her family's poverty in her early songs "Coat of Many Colors" and "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)". They lived in a rustic, one-room cabin in Locust Ridge, just north of the Greenbrier Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains, a predominantly Pentecostal area.
Music played an important role in her early life. She was brought up in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the church her grandfather, Jake Robert Owens, pastored. Her earliest public performances were in the church, beginning at age six. At seven, she started playing a homemade guitar. When she was eight years old, her uncle bought her first real guitar.
Parton began performing as a child, singing on local radio and television programs in the East Tennessee area. By ten, she was appearing on The Cas Walker Show on both WIVK Radio and WBIR-TV in Knoxville, Tennessee. At 13, she was recording (the single "Puppy Love") on a small Louisiana label, Goldband Records, and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, where she first met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to follow her own instincts regarding her career.
The day after she graduated from high school in 1964, she moved to Nashville. Her initial success came as a songwriter, having signed with Combine Publishing shortly after her arrival; with her frequent songwriting partner, her uncle Bill Owens, she wrote several charting singles during this time, including two top-10 hits: Bill Phillips's 1966 record "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" and Skeeter Davis's 1967 hit "Fuel to the Flame". Her songs were recorded by many other artists during this period, including Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr. She signed with Monument Records in 1965, at age 19; she initially was pitched as a bubblegum pop singer. She released a string of singles, but the only one that charted, "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby", did not crack the Billboard Hot 100. Although she expressed a desire to record country material, Monument resisted, thinking her unique voice with its strong vibrato was not suited to the genre.
After her composition, "Put It Off Until Tomorrow", as recorded by Bill Phillips (and with Parton, uncredited, on harmony), went to number six on the country chart in 1966, the label relented and allowed her to record country. Her first country single, "Dumb Blonde" (composed by Curly Putman, one of the few songs during this era that she recorded but did not write), reached number 24 on the country chart in 1967, followed by "Something Fishy", which went to number 17. The two songs appeared on her first full-length album, Hello, I'm Dolly.