The untold truth of Dolly Parton

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. 

Her family was so poor, peeing the bed was almost a luxury

For all of 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.”

She founded her book charity in honor of her dad

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.”

Her dog saved her life in an unexpected way

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 her

If you’ve ever marveled over 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!”

She patterned her style on the town tramp

You know how the saying goes: one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And, in 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 her 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 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!”

She’s all about that camper life

When you think about a living legend like 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 RV is permanently parked at Parton’s Tennessee amusement park, Dollywood

She stands by goddaughter Miley Cyrus’ artistic vision

Can you imagine having Parton as a godmother? Miley Cyrus doesn’t have to, because the 24-year-old 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?”

She’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 Parton, who married her 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.

She can play at least eight instruments

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 she 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 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!

She likes to spend time in cemeteries

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.

Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” cover came as a surprise

Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You” became a household hit in 1982 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 her makeup muse

While 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.”