Dolly Parton turns 75 today - here's how she went from a poor childhood in rural Tennessee to become one of the most beloved performers of all time

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Max Kalnitz
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dolly parton wide thumb
Dolly Parton then and now. Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer/Getty Images and Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
  • Before Dolly Parton was a country megastar, she grew up in a poor family in rural Tennessee.

  • She made up her first song aged 5 and played her first show at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry at 13.

  • As well as her No. 1s and hit movies, she has become well-known for her philanthropy.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

There are few pop icons so universally adored as Dolly Parton.

Equal parts country megastar, actress, and philanthropist, Parton has had a meteoric ascent throughout her six-decade career. She's released a whopping 91 albums, has won nine Grammys out of 50 nominations, and has generated millions in revenue for the city of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, thanks to her theme park, Dollywood. Oh, and with record sales totaling over $160 million, she's the most successful country artist of all time.

She also just donated $1 million to help fund a COVID-19 vaccine ... Is there any reason not to love her?

But her path to superstardom wasn't easy. Parton, one of 12 children, grew up in a poor family in rural Appalachia and released numerous albums before experiencing her first glimmer of commercial success.

In honor of Parton's 75th birthday on January 19, we charted her incredible life and career.

Dolly Parton was born in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, on January 19, 1946.

Young Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton posing for a portrait circa 1955. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The fourth of 12 children, Parton was born to a poor family in rural Appalachia.

Parton's father, Robert Lee, was a tobacco farmer and a construction worker who never learned to read or write as a result of abandoning school as a young child. Her mother, Avie Lee Owens, was a preacher's daughter who spent most of her life raising and taking care of her children.

According to her website, Parton always knew she wanted to be a star. In the early days of her musical career, she sang barefoot on the front porch of her family's home in the mountains. In 1951, at just 5 years old, Parton wrote her first song, "Little Tiny Tassle Top." Two years later, in 1953, Parton was so enthusiastic about playing music that she made her first guitar out of an old mandolin and two bass guitar strings.

Although Parton's family was poor, there was a wealth of musical talent surrounding her.

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Dolly Parton poses for a portrait in 1965. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Parton's mother sang and played guitar, and her father played the banjo and guitar, but it was her uncle Bill Owens who Parton credits with launching her career.

Bill saw young Dolly's potential and became her first manager. Owens got his 10-year-old niece her first gig in 1956 as a regular performer on "The Cas Walker Show" in Knoxville. He first introduced Parton to the multi-millionaire Walker after somehow getting her backstage during the taping of one of his shows. Parton walked up to Walker and said she wanted to work for him — and it worked.

Parton professionally recorded her first single, "Puppy Love," in 1957.

dolly parton young
A young Dolly Parton. Tsugufumi Matsumoto/AP

Parton wrote the song with her uncle when she was 11 and released the single, along with the B-track "Girl Left Alone," on Goldband Records in 1959.

Speaking of the 30-hour bus ride to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to record the single, Parton has said, "I don't think I'll ever forget the way the inside of that bus smelled. It was a combination of diesel fuel, Naugahyde, and people who were going places."

The single didn't garner any commercial success.

At the age of 13, she performed at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry for the first time.

Dolly Parton
A young Dolly Parton. Gems/Getty Images

Parton has said it was always her dream to perform at the Opry. "For me, the Opry is like the song 'New York, New York' — if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere," she said, according to her Opry artist bio.

At age 13 she got her chance. On the night of her performance, Johnny Cash introduced the young Parton and, after singing George Jones' song "You Gotta Be My Baby," she received three encores.

Parton was inducted to the Grand Ole Opry 10 years later in 1969 and in 2019, the TV special "Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry" — though it had actually been 60 years — aired on NBC, honoring her first performance at the famed Opry House. In a 2019 interview with Variety about the TV special, Parton reminisced about how informative those early days at the Opry were.

"I just have so many memories, even as a child watching the people backstage and just standing out there on that stage where all the great people stood, just thinking maybe some day I could be part of them," Parton said.

"Now that I've been lucky enough and fortunate enough to see that dream come true, I wonder if some little kid might say 'I bet Dolly Parton once stood here' or 'I'm standing where Dolly Parton stood.'"

From 1962 to 1966, Parton and her uncle had mixed success writing and recording songs.

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Dolly Parton in the late 1960s. GAB Archive/Getty Images

The duo was signed to Tree Publishing and Mercury Records in Nashville in 1962 and recorded the songs "It's Sure Gonna Hurt" and "The Love You Gave." The songs didn't make the charts and the label dropped Parton and Owens, according to the Library of Congress.

Despite this, Parton has said it was magical hearing herself on the radio. "I will never forget hearing [myself] on a Knoxville station, WIVK," she said. "There I was, actually hearing myself sing, not on a tape or studio monitor but on a real radio station that thousands of people were listening to… at that very moment. I was so proud I walked around for days with my chest all stuck out. Somehow, nobody noticed."

Parton recorded and released six songs on the album "Hits Made Famous by Country Queens" in 1963 and in 1965, she and her uncle were signed by Fred Foster to Combine publishing house and to Monument Records. The following year Bill Phillips charted in the Top 10 twice thanks to two songs written by Parton and Owens: "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" and "The Company You Keep."

In May 1966, Parton married her husband, Carl Dean.

dolly parton and carl dean
Dolly Parton and Carl Dean. Instagram/Dolly Parton

Parton was 18 when she met 21-year-old Dean outside the Wishy Washy Laundromat in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1964.

They were married in Georgia against the wishes of her record label, which thought that marriage would hamper the singer's career.

"It was just my mother and Carl and me," Parton told CMT in 2016. "We went across the state line to Ringgold, Georgia. My mother made me a little white dress and a little bouquet and a little Bible. But I said, 'I can't get married in a courthouse because I'll never feel married.' So we found a little Baptist church in town, and went up to Pastor Don Duvall and said, 'Would you marry us?' We got pictures on the steps right outside the church."

They have been married for 54 years. Despite his wife's fame, Dean, a retired businessman who used to run an asphalt-laying company, prefers to stay out of the public eye. He has attended a few of Parton's concerts throughout the years, but after attending one award show in 1966, he told the singer, "'Dolly, I want you to have everything you want, and I'm happy for you, but don't you ever ask me to go to another one of them dang things again!'"

Parton's career began to really take off in 1967.

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Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner performing together in 1967. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Parton finally found success on the Billboard country charts in January 1967, with two singles for Monument Records: "Dumb Blonde" (No. 24) and "Something Fishy" (No. 17), according to the Library of Congress. In July of that year, Parton's first full-length album, "Hello, I'm Dolly," was also released on Monument.

In September 1967, Parton appeared on the "The Porter Wagoner Show" and by the end of the year, the duo had teamed up to release a version of "The Last Thing on My Mind," which hit No. 7 on Billboard's country chart.

RCA signed Parton and Wagoner and the duo released their first album together, "Just Between You and Me," the following year — Parton also released her first solo single, "Just Because I'm a Woman," the same year. Parton and Wagoner took home the Country Music Association award for Vocal Group of the Year and the Music City News award for Duet of the Year.

Parton earned her first No. 1 hit in 1971.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton in 1970. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Following the success of her cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)," which topped out at No. 3 on the Billboard country charts in 1970, Parton's single "Joshua" was her first chart-topper.

Her 13th solo studio album, "Jolene," dominated the charts after its release in 1974.

Dolly Parton in 1974
Dolly Parton in 1974. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Jolene" is without a doubt one of Parton's most well-known hits and rightfully so; it reached No. 1 on the country charts and peaked at No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps most importantly, the song's success proved Parton has crossover potential in the popular music realm.

Parton's next four singles — "I Will Always Love You;" "Please Don't Stop Loving Me" (a duet with Porter); "Love is like a Butterfly;" and "The Bargain Store" — all reached No. 1 on the country charts. In 1975, the CMAs awarded Parton with the Female Vocalist of the Year award.

Because of her solo success, Parton stopped performing on Porter Wagoner's TV and roadshow in 1974, and in 1976 she ended all professional ties with Wagoner. In its place, Parton created "Dolly," her first — but certainly not her last — syndicated TV show, which ran for one year.

Parton had another standout year in 1977 thanks to a pair of critically acclaimed albums.

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Dolly Parton on stage with country superstar Minnie Pearl at the 1977 CMA Awards. AP Images

Parton released both "New Harvest... First Gathering" and "Here You Come Again" in 1977, in February and October, respectively. "Here You Come Again" went on to achieve platinum in 1978 — her first album to sell one million copies.

"Here You Come Again" signaled a monumental shift in the singer's sound and career trajectory. She tapped pop producer Gary Klein to work on the album and she recruited outside writers to compose some of its songs, according to The Boot. Parton had shown potential as a pop singer on previous albums, but her 1977 offerings cemented her position as a pop sensation and helped pave the way for poppier hits like "9 to 5."

The album also earned Parton a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Parton starred in her first film, "9 to 5" in 1980, which featured her hit song of the same name.

Dolly Parton
From right to left, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton in 1980 standing in front of a mural advertising Parton's movie "9 to 5." AP Images

Dolly Parton made her silver screen debut in her 1980 comedy "9 to 5" and contributed the hit song of the same name to the film's soundtrack. It turned out to be the pinnacle of Parton's career (the song soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100).

Parton's performance and song earned her a slew of award nominations including from the Golden Globes for New Female Star of the Year in a Motion Picture, Best Actress in a Motion Picture, and Best Original Song; from the Oscars for Best Original Song; and from the People's Choice Award for Favorite Theme/Song from a Motion Picture.

Although she didn't win any of the aforementioned awards, Parton was also nominated for four Grammys and won two of them for Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Parton's success grew exponentially in the early '80s following "9 to 5," both on the screen and on stage.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. Ted Powers/ AP Images

Although the song was released on the album "Jolene" in 1974, it was Parton's performance in the 1982 film "The Best Little W----house in Texas" that helped popularize "I Will Always Love You."

Parton tweaked the song from its country roots and gave it a more pop-centric sound. Her new angle on the song paid off — Parton earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Later in the 1992 film "The Bodyguard," Whitney Houston once again popularized the song with her famous R&B version, which spent what was at the time a record-breaking 14 weeks at No. 1.

Parton continued to ride the wave of success into 1983 when she teamed up with Kenny Rogers for the hit single "Islands In The Stream," which reached No. 1 on pop, country, and contemporary charts and earned numerous awards nominations.

Now a proven actress, Parton began securing acting roles alongside heavy-hitters of the '80s including Sylvester Stallone in "Rhinestone Cowboy" in 1984.

1986 was a homecoming of sorts for Parton, who opened Dollywood in an attempt to increase employment and revenue near her hometown.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton posing next to a Dollywood sign in 1988. Ron Davis/Getty Images

Parton is known for her generosity, but the initiative she's best known for is her theme park, Dollywood, which she built in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near her hometown.

During the park's 25th season in 2010, Parton told the Associated Press that she always intended on returning to her home and helping better the lives of everyone who supported her as a young aspiring musician.

"I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area," Parton said. "Sure enough, I was lucky, and God was good to me and things happened good. We started the park, and 25 years later, we're still at it."

In 1988, Parton founded the Dollywood Foundation. In the early 1990s, the foundation promised $500 to area seventh- and eighth-grade students who graduated from high school. In doing so, she decreased the dropout rate from 35% to 6%, according to the organization's website. Today, the initiative has morphed into serving many different causes, including Parton's Imagination Library, which has provided hundreds of millions of free books to children around the world.

The same year, Parton was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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Dolly Parton in 1987. Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Among the many accolades that earned her entry to the hall of fame, her artist page cites that she was "the first female country artist to record two [No. 1] pop singles (both self-penned), and the first to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was the first female songwriter to win BMI's Five-Million Air award, given for 5 million radio performances of 'I Will Always Love You.'"

Parton's 1987 album, "Trio," with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris was released to critical acclaim.

Dolly Parton
From left to right, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton rehearse for the annual Country Music Association awards show in 1986. Dan Loftin/AP Images

In addition to their cover of Ronnie Spector's song "To Know Him is to Love Him" reaching No. 1 on the Country Singles Chart, "Trio" also won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group, the Academy of Country Music Award for Album of the Year, and won the CMA's award for Vocal Event of the Year.

In 1991, Parton teamed up with Ricky Van Shelton for another No. 1 hit.

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Dolly Parton in 1989. Mark Humphrey/AP Images

Parton tapped Van Shelton to sing the song "Rockin' Years" off the album "Eagle When She Flies," which earned Parton another No. 1 hit.

In 1994, Parton released her first book, an autobiography, "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business."

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton performing in 1994. NBC/

According to a description of the book on her website, it "recounts her childhood growing up poor in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and talks about her music, religion, marriage and many other aspects of her life like her opinions about plastic surgery and her larger-than-life persona."

The book charted on the New York Times Bestseller list for two months following its release.

From 1999 to 2003, Parton shifted gears and released a trio of bluegrass albums that proved just as successful as her country and pop material.

Dolly Parton
In addition to her Grammy Awards and nominations, she also received recognition from the CMA and the Association for Independent Music Awards. Jim Cooper/AP Images

Parton's first bluegrass album, 1999's "The Grass Is Blue," won a Grammy in 2000 for the Best Bluegrass album. She followed it up in 2001 with "Little Sparrow," a bluegrass and folk album which won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album. In 2002 she released "Halos and Horns," which featured a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and earned Parton two more Grammy nominations.

The Library of Congress awarded Parton with the Living Legends Medal in 2004.

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Dolly Parton performing in 2004. Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images

The award recognizes "individuals who have made significant contributions to America's cultural, scientific and social heritage," according to the Library of Congress. Other musicians to win the award include Johnny Cash and Yo-Yo Ma.

While presenting the award to Parton during a concert in 2004, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington commended the singer's meteoric musical career while staying true to her roots, and her desire to help others.

"Dolly Parton has made an indelible mark on pop culture," Billington said. "Her contributions to crossover music, her ability to give voice to women's issues and the retention of her early Appalachian roots all stand as tribute to the artistry, heart and soul that Dolly brings to all she does."

Dolly Parton was one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2006.

Dolly Parton
From left to right, Zubin Mehta, Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. LESLIE E. KOSSOFF/Getty Images

Parton, conductor Zubin Mehta, musician Smokey Robinson, director Steven Spielberg, and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber were recognized for their lifelong contributions to American culture.

In 2011, the Recording Academy presented Parton with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton in 2011. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Roughly 54 years after releasing her first song, Parton received one of the music realm's most prestigious awards.

In an article honoring Parton, country singer Miranda Lambert wrote of the singer's masterful lyricism, diverse contributions to American culture, and her dedication to her roots.

"Dolly has proven herself well beyond the boundaries of country music, but she has carried the banner for country music no matter where her career has taken her," Lambert wrote. "From her days getting started on 'The Porter Wagoner Show' to topping the country music charts to her critically acclaimed bluegrass albums and winning every award in between, Dolly has become timeless."

The movie "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors" was released in 2015 and told the true story of the singer's rise to fame.

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Dolly Parton in 2015. NBC/Getty Images

The movie explores Parton's childhood and the struggles her family faced living in the foothills of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains. According to Cowboys and Indians, 15.6 million viewers tuned into the special, enough to merit an encore showing of the film on Christmas 2015.

"I hoped to bring some families together so they could sit and watch a movie like this," the outlet quotes Parton as saying. "I really wanted to celebrate the people, my whole family, who made me who and what I am today. I'm so blessed and thankful for everyone who watched, and I hope this story reaches many, many more when NBC shows it Christmas night."

The outlet continues that "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors" was the most-watched film shown on any of the four broadcast networks in more than six years, which is likely why a sequel "Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love" was released in 2016.

Guinness World Records honored Parton with two world records in 2018.

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Dolly Parton in 2017. NBC/Getty Images

In 2018, the organization awarded Parton with two distinctions: the female artist with the most hits (107) on the US Hot Country Songs chart by a female artist and the most decades (six) with a Top 20 hit on the Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

When asked how it feels to have made music that has endured for so long, Parton said, "It's a good feeling to know that I've had hit songs though all those decades, it makes me feel like I'm about 100, which it won't be long 'till I am. ... I'm just honored and proud that people have loved my music for all of these years."

In 2021, Dolly Parton is more beloved than ever - for her enduring positivity, generosity, and music.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton performing in December 2020. 2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images

As she celebrates her 75th birthday, Dolly Parton is showing no signs that she's ready to slow down.

In March 2020, she told "60 Minutes Australia" that to celebrate her birthday she'd love to appear on the cover of Playboy Magazine, just as she did, aged 32, back in 1978.

"I did Playboy years ago. I thought it'd be such a hoot if they'll go for it. I don't know if they will, if I could be on the cover again when I'm 75," she told anchor Tom Steinfort.

In the meantime, Parton released a new Christmas album in October and aired the TV special "A Holly Dolly Christmas" last month on CBS. Parton earned glowing headlines late in 2020 for making a $1 million donation to help fund a COVID-19 vaccine.

We love you Dolly. Happy 75th.

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