If there is one public figure that is sinuous with the Smoky Mountains, it would have to be Dolly Rebecca Parton. Of course, her name adorns the area’s largest tourist attraction, Dollywood, and you see her image around the area as much as you would see that of Elvis in Memphis. With that said, I thought I would pay a short tribute to the woman who has definitely given back to the area from which she was born.
On the day of January 19, 1946, Dolly was born in Sevierville. The fourth of twelve children, she grew up in nearby Locust Ridge. Describing her circumstances growing up as “dirt poor,” Parton became enchanted with music at an early age. Her initial exposure came on the Cas Walker Show on Knoxville’s WIVK Radio. Walker was one of the area’s leading businessmen, and the exposure helped to create quite a following for the young songstress.
She, along with her Uncle Bill Owens, began to make many a trip to Nashville, and upon graduation from Sevier County High School, there was no doubting her destination. In fact, the morning after her graduation, Parton boarded a bus headed to Nashville, and eventually superstardom. Many in the crowd snickered when Dolly told the crowd at her graduation ceremony that she was going to be a star. I guess you can say she proved them wrong!
Still, it wasn’t an overnight success. Her biggest hits initially came as a songwriter, thought she did sign on the dotted line with Fred Foster and his Monument Records label. She climbed to #24 in 1967 with the self-penned “Dumb Blonde,” which would prove to be the first of many top 40 appearances for the singer.
Later that year, Parton received an invitation to join the stage and TV show of Porter Wagoner, replacing longtime fan favorite Norma Jean. Fans were resistant to the change, so Wagoner decided the best way to introduce Parton to his crowd was to record a few duets with her—something he never did with Norma Jean. The results were instant, and classic. The pair won countless “Vocal Duo Of The Year” awards from all the major organizations, and Dolly’s move to RCA Victor resulted in her star rising all the way to the top.
Her songwriting continued to blossom, and she penned several classics inspired by her life growing up, such as 1971’s autobiographical “Coat Of Many Colors.” After seven years with Wagoner, she went on her own in 1974, and the results speak for themselves. As the 70s progressed, Parton became a pop culture icon, leading to continued success with Country, but also Pop (1977’s “Here You Come Again” was her first major crossover record), and movies, with starring roles in films such as “9 To 5.”
The 1980s saw no fall from the top, as she was a chart favorite all decade long. In 1983, she teamed up with Kenny Rogers for “Islands In The Stream,” which was the biggest selling single in the history of RCA Records. Her affiliation with RCA ended in 1986, but the career continued to grow. A new deal with Columbia led to even more hits, and her 1987 collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt, Trio, is generally regarded as one of the top albums in Country Music.
1986 also saw the opening of her theme park, Dollywood, which is now one of the biggest parks in the United States, attracting millions of visitors each year—proving her business acumen. Aside from her 1987 variety series on ABC, everything she touches turn to gold. But even then, her contract was for two years and $ 44 million dollars…she definitely got the last laugh on Hollywood.
Some forty-five years after moving to Nashville, Parton continues to be one of the best friends that Sevier County has ever known. Dollywood pumps untold millions into the local economy, and her Dollywood Foundation helps out many local charities. Her “Imagination Library” gives one book each month to a child upon birth until they reach kindergarden, and has been duplicated many times by other counties across the United States.
Dolly Parton may have moved away to Nashville, but her heart and soul remains tied to the Smoky Mountain region where she drew her first breath, and though her glamorous image and stunning looks might make her worthy of being called an angel, if you were to ask most citizens of the area, they would probably say she is a real-life angel, who has helped the region to grow and thrive!