Dolly Parton and Her Husband of 57 Years, Carl Dean, Have the Sweetest Love Story

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dolly parton and carl dean

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Dolly Parton, age 77, is the queen of country whose career shows no signs of slowing down after all these years (her upcoming album, Rockstar, is set for global release in November 2023). Carl Dean, age 81, is now retired from the asphalt-paving business and “loves living on the farm.” He’s notoriously private while she lives her life in the public eye, but their differences and respective independence are part of the secret to their successful marriage, 57 years and counting.

Here’s their story, including how they met, their secret wedding in 1966, why they never had children, how they survived an affair of the heart, and their RV adventures to the Taco Bell drive-thru.

Dolly met Carl the day she moved to Nashville.

Immediately after her high-school graduation, Dolly Parton left her home in Sevierville, Tennessee, for the city lights of Nashville, about 200 miles west. The fourth-born of 12 brothers and sisters, she'd had her first taste of success five years earlier when, at 13, a small record label in Louisiana produced her first single, "Puppy Love."

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean
Courtesy of Dolly Parton/

The record wasn't the big break she was looking for, but it was a start, enough encouragement that the platinum-blonde singer "never thought of being anything other than a star," and made no backup plan. How iconic!

On that first day in Music City, 18-year-old Dolly was doing her laundry at the Wishy Washy laundromat when Carl Dean, 21, drove by in his white Chevy pickup truck. He stopped to tell her she was going to get a sunburn in her revealing outfit, then struck up a conversation as she went indoors to fold her clothes.

"My first thought was I'm gonna marry that girl," Carl said in a statement for the couple's 50th wedding anniversary in 2016. "My second thought was, Lord she's good lookin'. And that was the day my life began. I wouldn't trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth."

Dolly was "surprised and delighted" that this tall, handsome man looked at her face when they were talking—"a rare thing for me," she said—and "seemed to be genuinely interested in finding out who I was and what I was about."

The pair began dating, and Dolly signed with Monument Records shortly after. Dolly's love life and career were on the fast track. When Carl and Dolly got engaged, Carl's mother was excited to plan a big wedding, because her only daughter had eloped, Dolly told CMT. Sadly, the ceremony of the bride's (and mother-in-law's) dreams was not to be.

"Everyone at my label had invested money in me and in building my career, so they asked me if I'd wait a year to get married," Dolly recalled. "And I didn't want to not do what I was supposed to do. Carl's mother was just heartbroken."

They got secretly married two years later.

Two years after they first met, Dolly, 20, and Carl, 23, tied the knot in a secret ceremony in Ringgold, Georgia, about 150 miles southeast of Nashville, on Memorial Day 1966. They chose to go out of town so Tennessee newspapers wouldn't report on the marriage. The only witnesses were Dolly's mother, Avie Lee, the preacher and his wife.

Dean and Dolly Parton on their wedding day, May 30, 1966.
Dean and Parton on their wedding day, May 30, 1966.Courtesy of Dolly Parton/

"My mother made me a little white dress and a little bouquet," Dolly told CMT. "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."

Carl has always let Dolly have the spotlight.

Even before Dolly reached stardom, it became clear that her husband had no interest in the entertainment industry. It's been reported that, after joining her on the red carpet for an industry event in 1966, Carl said on the drive home, "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!"

Dolly's big break came the following year with her first full-length album, Hello, I'm Dolly. She also joined the nationally syndicated Porter Wagoner Show in 1967, and for the next seven years, 45 million people tuned in each week to watch her perform.

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean
Dolly Parton and Carl DeanCourtesy of Dolly Parton/

In the 57 years they've been married, the notoriously private Carl has only appeared with Dolly in public a handful of times. Still, she considers him to be her "biggest fan."

"He’s always supporting me as long as I don’t try to drag him in on it," Dolly told People at the premiere for her Netflix series in 2019. "He’s always been my biggest fan behind the scenes … But anyway, he’d never come dragging around. I’d rather bring somebody else with me, you know? He’s never jealous of that either."

Their respective independence is one of the secrets to their enduring union, Dolly has said.

"He’s kind of a loner so he doesn't really like being with anybody but me, when I'm home— I mean, he’s not one to kind of get out there and socialize that much. He loves living on the farm, taking care of the property as he has for all these many years, and then, we just have a lot to talk about," Dolly told Entertainment Tonight earlier this year.

But Dolly still struggled with self-doubt.

Despite her strong relationship, the fiercely independent Dolly isn't without insecurities. She famously wrote the hit single "Jolene" after a redheaded bank teller took interest in Carl. "She got this terrible crush on my husband," Dolly told NPR. "It was kinda like a running joke between us—when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.'"

Dolly believed the bank employee had everything she didn't, "like legs—you know, she was about 6 feet tall. And had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have."

dolly parton hearstrings cast photos
Julianne Hough appears alongside Dolly as Jolene in Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. Netflix

The Backwoods Barbie has copped to being a "flirt and a tease," herself, though she's also said she has never met a man who could take Carl's place. She admitted once to having an "affair of the heart," but she credited her faith for getting her through that dark time.

Today, the couple still enjoys a "simple" life together.

They never had children of their own, which Dolly said she used to regret—but now, she's happy to have become close to her younger siblings and her nieces and nephews.

"Now that Carl and I are older, we often say, 'Aren't you glad we didn't have kids?' Now we don't have kids to worry about," she told Billboard.

But the couple is still committed to helping support Dolly's large family and have worked with many children through her charity. When Dolly's not busy doing good or making music, she enjoys downtime with her husband.

Carl, who's retired from the asphalt-paving business, likes to take Dolly out in their RV and "just be simple." They've even been known to hit up the Taco Bell drive-thru in their camper on date nights. "I love to read, I love to cook, I love to be with my husband. I put on my little comfy clothes—I call them my baby clothes—and we just relax," Dolly said.

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean

What does Dolly love most about the man she calls her complete opposite, the inspiration behind, "From Here to the Moon and Back"?

"We have a lot of love and respect for each other, and I think the key to all of it—we both have a crazy, warped sense of humor, so we have a lot of fun," Dolly said.

For their 50th wedding anniversary, the queen of Dollywood talked Carl into having a big blowout ceremony in Nashville—something she said he only agreed to because they planned to sell photo rights to raise money for charity. Dolly wore a dress by Steve Summers, her longtime costume designer, and the couple spent their second honeymoon in (where else?) their camper, by the lake in Ringgold, Georgia.

"If I had it to do all over, I'd do it all over again, and we did," Dolly said in 2016. "I'm dragging him kicking and screaming into the next 50 years."

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