Early life and career
Dolly Rebecca Parton was born January 19, 1946, in Locust Ridge, a remote area in rural Sevier County, Tennessee. She is the fourth of twelve children born to Avie Lee Caroline (née Owens; 1923 – 2003) and Robert Lee Parton Sr. (1921 – 2000). Mr. Parton (known as "Lee") was a subsistence farmer and construction worker. Avie Lee was homemaker for their large family. Her 11 pregnancies between 1939 and 1959 made her a mother of 12 by age 35.
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.