'I absorbed everything': How growing up in a family of 12 kids turned Dolly Parton into a country icon

In her new book Songteller, Parton recounts the stories behind 150 of her best-loved songs.

In her new book Songteller, Parton recounts the stories behind 150 of her best-loved songs

'I accept everybody for who they are. I am not a judgmental person,' says country icon Dolly Parton. 'I love everybody. I really do.' (Rob Hoffman)

When country icon Dolly Parton was growing up in a family of 12 kids in rural Tennessee, she had to do what she could to get noticed.

With a sister and two brothers above her and eight siblings below, Parton knew she wasn't going to get any extra attention unless she got into trouble — or put on a good show.

So she picked up her little guitar, and, as she puts it, "lived with my music."

WATCH | Dolly Parton's full interview with Tom Power:

"I lived with my little guitar, and I just created my own little world. And mama would be fascinated with the songs that I would write. And when people would come to our house, mama would say, 'Run and get your guitar,'" remembered Parton in an interview with q host Tom Power.

"I thought, 'I'm getting all this attention, and I'm doing something special.' So that just encouraged me," she said.

"I loved doing it. So it just became my thing."

New memoir explores 150 of her songs

That childhood pursuit transformed her into one of country music's biggest icons.

Parton still holds the record for top 10 country albums — 44 in all — and has had more than 100 singles climb the charts. She has won 10 Grammys and heaps of other honours, including Country Music Association Awards, American Music Awards, and a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

She has penned over 3,000 songs, among them Jolene, Coat of Many Colors, 9 to 5, and Whitney Houston's signature hit I Will Always Love You.

As an actress she has starred in films including 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Steel Magnolias and Rhinestone, to name a few.

Cover of Dolly Parton's new book Songteller. (Chronicle Books)

Parton is also a long-time philanthropist, and has donated more than 130 million books to children around the world. More recently, she donated $1 million to COVID-19 research at Vanderbilt University, which went, in part, toward the development of Moderna's experimental coronavirus vaccine.

Now 74, Parton has just released Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, an image-heavy memoir and annotated songbook that explores the iconic musician's life and career through 150 of her best-loved songs.

"I really had a chance to revisit and think about why I wrote the song, where I was emotionally at that time, where I was physically, where I was living, what I was doing, and just why I wrote them. So it really was fun for me, but it was kind of draining in a way."

Parton says her very first song, Little Tiny Tassel Top, which the singer penned when she was just four or five years old, was inspired by a homemade doll.

"We didn't get store-bought toys and all that stuff," said Parton, who has often talked about growing up in poverty. Her family grew corn, which they would shuck and shell, and then her father would sell it to the gristmill for cornmeal.

She recalls her father taking a poker from the fire and burning eye holes into a corncob, which her mother adorned with corn silk for hair and a dress made from husks.

From her new book Songteller, an image of the sheet music for Parton's signature song Jolene. (Antonis Achilleos)

"It was mine, it was personal. That was my little doll," Parton said. "And I had emotions for her, and love and fears for her. So I wrote the little song about it: 'Little Tiny Tassel Top, you're the only friend I got. Hope you never go away. I want you to stay,'" sang Parton, whose mother had written down the lyrics and found them years later.

"She was fascinated with my rhyming, and singing that little song. And then that kind of brought that back to me. But I was writing before I could even write."

'I absorbed everything'

Parton remembers that as a child, she was surrounded by music, with the house full of people playing and singing — but the songs they sang and the stories they told often had a darker hue.

"I would hear my mom and my aunts and other women sitting around, or people just talking about people that had been killed in the war, or somebody's son that got murdered up at the saw mill," she said.

"I absorbed everything. … And then when I learned to play that little guitar, my heart was always heavy from hearing all these songs, so that was how I channeled all those feelings, whether they were happy or whether they were sad."

The dark, old-world ballads they sang in turn inspired some of Parton's biggest hits, including her signature song Jolene.

"I'm very dramatic in my writing. I love stories, and I love creating stories, and I just become whatever I'm writing about," she explained.

A high school portrait of country icon Dolly Parton. (Courtesy of Chasing Rainbows Museum)

So what was the biggest lesson that Parton learned from her humble beginnings? "Being grateful, and thankful, and understanding all people," she said. 

Parton adds that she was never intimidated by people who had money; she always felt she could fit in anywhere, even when she didn't know how to properly hold a spoon.

"I just never felt out of place, because I was always self-contained — and I was always comfortable with who I was," she said. "I still am."

Parton isn't only beloved for her music; she is also revered for her openness, her tolerance, and her outspoken support of marginalized communities. Much of that impulse, she says, stems from her upbringing.

"People relate to me because I did grow up with humble beginnings. And I think people can relate to me in every way — like my gay following — they relate to me because they know I love people. I accept everybody for who they are. I am not a judgmental person. I love everybody. I really do."

Because she grew up in such a large family, Parton sees a family member in everyone she meets — from truckers to farmers to rebels. She wants to uplift people, she says, and to help spread love.

"You know, I just think we're supposed to love our neighbour as ourselves. We're supposed to care. We're supposed to try harder than we are these days," she said. "And you certainly need to believe in love."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Chris Trowbridge.


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