Dolly Parton: How this ‘Backwoods Barbie’ built her empire
“I’m just a working girl,” country singer Dolly Parton once told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “I never think of myself as a star because, as somebody once said, ‘A star is nothing but a big ball of gas’ — and I don’t want to be that.”
Since moving to Nashville, Tennessee from the Smoky Mountains, this “Backwoods Barbie” has amassed a multi-million dollar net worth, started several businesses and became an American icon. Read on to find out how Parton went from rags to riches and the important financial choices she made along the way.
1. She was born the fourth of 12 children
Dolly Parton was born January 19, 1946 in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. The fourth out of 12 siblings, Parton shared a one-room cabin with her family, which had no plumbing or electricity. They were so poor that when she was born, her father paid the doctor with a bag of cornmeal, says the Hollywood Reporter.
The 12 kids were almost 13 — her little brother Larry Parton died four days after he was born in 1955. Nine-year-old Parton was completely heartbroken.
NEXT: Parton has never forgotten about her best friend from 3rd grade, Judy Ogle, but other parts of her childhood she might want to forget about.
2. She learned guitar when she was a child
Parton played a homemade guitar at age 7. Her uncle bought her a real guitar when she turned 8-years-old. It didn’t take long for Parton’s talent to get noticed — she was appearing on local radio stations at age 10. Her peers didn’t take too kindly to the young performer’s talents, however.
Fansite Dollymania says that her classmates locked her in a coat closet after she sang on local TV. They were probably just jealous that Parton was on TV and they weren’t.
NEXT: Parton’s first crush was recording artist Johnny Cash. She became a recording artist like Cash at this young age.
3. Parton recorded her first single at 13-years-old
Little Parton recorded her first song, “Puppy Love,” when she was only 13-years-old on a small Louisiana record label called Goldband Records. It was evident that this youngster had something special about her. Parton’s talents even got her to the stage at the Grand Ole Opry when she was 13 as well.
Dolly Parton first met Johnny Cash at the Grand Ole Opry who told the young singer to follow her own instincts when it came to her career.
NEXT: Parton’s sisters Stella and Freida Parton also have singing careers but Dolly is obviously the most successful! Here’s how her career got kick-started.
4. She wrote songs for artists like Hank Williams Jr.
Parton graduated high school in 1964 and moved directly to Nashville, Tennessee to help her country-singing career take off. Making the move from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Music City was essential, as there were far more opportunities available. She was signed to Combine Publishing and started writing songs for well-known country artists.
Country singers that performed songs by Parton include Bill Phillips, Hank Williams Jr., and Skeeter Davis. Parton often worked with her musical uncle Bill Owens on songwriting.
NEXT: Parton is a master songwriter — she’s written thousands of songs since age 7. Knowing that, it makes sense she owns this company.
5. Parton started her own publishing company
Writing songs for stars at Combine Publishing was all well and good but it seemed like Parton had an entrepreneurial spirit early on. (Her contract with Combine had ended anyways.) Alongside her songwriting buddy and uncle, Bill Owens, she started the publishing company Owe-Par. (It’s an homage to their last names — can’t you tell? ;))
Parton is mostly known as a singer. However, she has said that she considers herself a writer first and foremost. Porter Wagoner owned half a stake in Parton’s publishing company and was also her co-producer.
NEXT: Although Parton has said that she considers herself a writer first, this is her second passion.
6. She wanted to sing, not just write
Prior to starting Owe-Par, Parton was signed to Monument Records in 1965. Writing was a passion of hers, but she’d moved to Nashville, Tennessee to sing as well. Parton released her first full-length album in 1967 called Hello, I’m Dolly. The opening song on the album is “Dumb Blonde” — but she’s anything but!
“This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” Parton sweetly warbles on the chorus. Other great songs on that 12-song record are “Your Ole Handy Man,” “I Don’t Want to Throw Rice,” and “I Wasted My Tears.”
NEXT: “I Will Always Love You” was written about the professional breakup Parton had with this mentor.
7. The Porter Wagoner Show helped her career take off
Parton joined the TV show in 1967, singing with its star Porter Wagoner. The duets became big in the country world — so much so that Parton was eventually signed to Wagoner’s label, RCA Victor. Parton was on the show for 8 years before going solo. When she left, Wagoner sued for breach of contract, says Country Living.
Their rift inspired Parton to write “I Will Always Love You.” Eventually, the pair made up in 2007 before Wagoner died of lung cancer. Parton was with him the day he died. “I held his hand and we prayed,” Parton told Knoxville’s News Sentinel.
NEXT: Parton’s most famous song was partly inspired by a bank teller that would flirt with Parton’s husband.
8. “Jolene” was one of her biggest hits
In the somber song, the protagonist begs for Jolene to “please don’t take my man.” The 1973 hit topped the country charts and let Parton step out of the shadow of Porter Wagoner. Parton told NPR that this song was partly inspired by a redheaded bank teller that had a crush on her husband, Carl Dean.
Parton wasn’t threatened about the redhead although the song sounds haunting and somber. The teller’s name wasn’t Jolene either — Parton had met a charming little girl named Jolene and was inspired to name a song after her.
NEXT: Parton will be releasing an anthology in 2019, with each episode based on one of her songs. Here are her past forays into TV.
9. Parton returned to TV with her show, Dolly!
She was already well known in the country world, but it was this show that helped Parton win appeal in the world of pop, says MSN. Dolly! was a syndicated variety show starring Parton herself, without her co-star of many years (and mentor), Porter Wagoner. She was approached to do the show by Bill Graham.
Graham was the president of Show Biz, Inc., which also produced the Porter Wagoner Show. Dolly! had a budget of $85,000 per episode — which was impressive for that time period.
NEXT: Parton has sold over 100 million albums so far, but this was her first album to sell more than a million copies.
10. Here You Come Again was her first album to sell more than a million copies
Thanks to Parton’s careful planning, she was able to make a wildly successful album. She chose to work with talented pop producer Gary Klein on this 1977 release. The album leaned towards a more pop direction to appeal to a wider audience. This turned out to be a smart move for the country singer, says MSN.
The album’s title track was her first single to chart in the top 10, coming in at number three. Post-Here You Come Again, Parton successfully worked in both pop and country worlds.
NEXT: Parton has remained down to Earth despite this massive net worth. She’s even stayed with her husband of 50 plus years, Carl Dean, and has secret tattoos dedicated to him.
11. Parton’s net worth is $500 million
Eventually, when Parton’s career became world famous, she amassed an impressive net worth of $500 million. Truly a jack of all trades, Parton’s careers in music, songwriting, a record label, her theme park, movies, TV, and more have helped her reach multi-million dollar status. She’s definitely splurged on some nice stuff with that money.
However, Parton has also given a lot back to her community and remained down to Earth. If only there were way more multi-millionaires like Parton out there! The world would be a much better place.
NEXT: You might have seen her recent Netflix film Dumplin’ but Parton has been in several movies prior to that 2018 release.
12. Parton made money from the silver screen, not just music
Not only did Parton write the theme song to 9 to 5, she also starred in this movie alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. It was Parton’s first time in a film but she was able to score Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Movie — Musical or Comedy and New Star of the Year.
Her next movie was The Best Little Wh***house in Texas, released in 1982. Parton starred alongside Burt Reynolds and got another Golden Globe nomination for her acting. In 1989, Parton starred in the massive hit Steel Magnolias — it earned $95 million at box offices.
NEXT: Parton — aka Miley Cyrus’ honorary godmother — has won more accolades than most popular singers.
13. She was nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy and other awards
This original song appeared in the movie of the same name in 1981. Parton was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Travelin’ Thru” from the flick Transamerica. In addition to her Oscar recognition, she has received three Golden Globes nominations for the film 9 to 5, one for The Best Little Wh***house in Texas and one for Transamerica.
The same year that Parton procured her first Grammy, she was also nominated for an Emmy for her supporting actress role in a variety program alongside fellow diva, Cher.
NEXT: Parton has been nominated 47 times for this very important accolade in the music industry.
14. Parton has won seven Grammys
It was in 1979 that Parton won her first Grammy, however, for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “Here You Come Again.” Previously, the larger than life singer had been nominated for Grammys 13 times. Fourteenth time’s a charm, we guess? In total, she’s been nominated 47 times for a Grammy award, says CNN.
Some categories Parton has won are Person of the Year, Hall of Fame (for “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”), Lifetime Achievement, Female Country Vocal Performance, and Bluegrass Album.
NEXT: Parton recorded “Islands in the Stream” with the country singer that started a chain of chicken restaurants. The restaurant surprisingly made a debut on Seinfeld.
15. She’s had 25 Number 1 songs on Billboard
In 1980, Parton released back-to-back chart-toppers — “Starting Over Again,” “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” and “9 to 5.” The Billboard charts are significant in the U.S. because they’re the industry standard for most popular songs. They tabulate the weekly popularity of songs and albums in the U.S.
Parton saw a decline in her popularity in the 1980s, says MSN, but that didn’t last for long. Notably, she recorded the smash hit duet “Islands in the Stream” with fellow country singer Kenny Rogers in 1983.
NEXT: One of her many TV appearances included playing Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana opposite honorary goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
16. Parton never left the TV screen
Possibly allowing her to reach more audiences, Parton has kept appearing in TV shows throughout her career as well as making a name for herself in the music industry. One of her notable starring appearances on the small screen was her 2015 and 2016 made for TV movies on NBC, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love.
Parton also starred with Carol Burnett in 1978 on the CBS special, Carol and Dolly in Nashville and on Hannah Montana as Aunt Dolly, acting alongside her real-life “honorary” goddaughter, Miley Cyrus.
NEXT: Elvis Presley wanted to cover this Parton song but she said “no” because it required her to hand over half of her publishing rights.
17. Parton makes royalties off of “I Will Always Love You”
Songstress Whitney Houston later covered this ballad to much acclaim but it was actually Parton that wrote this hit. Houston covered the song for the film The Bodyguard in 1992. The soundtrack for the movie was wildly successful, selling 20 million copies. The Hollywood Reporter said following Houston’s death in 2012, the song sold 735,000 units.
Because of that, Parton earned $70,000 in just a short period of time. Originally Parton had written the high-grossing song in 1975, inspired by the estranged relationship with her old friend Porter Wagoner, says MSN. (The pair reconciled in 2007.)
NEXT: This business Parton created is the biggest employer in her hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee.
18. Dollywood is a $300 million investment
A lot of musicians and actors decide to go into business, but how many do you know with their own theme park? Of course, Parton has her own — Dollywood. The entrepreneurial singer purchased an interest in amusement park Silver Dollar City in 1986. The park reopened the same year re-branded as Dollywood.
It also doubled in size and became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tennessee, says MSN. Later on in 2001, Dollywood expanded with Dollywood’s Splash Country, located adjacent to the original park. It opened a luxury resort and spa in 2015.
NEXT: Why have we never seen Dolly Parton show off her arms?
19. Is Dolly secretly covered in tattoos?
It’s rumored that the reason Dolly Parton always wears long sleeves in public is that she’s covering up all of her tattoos. It actually makes total sense. When was the last time you saw a picture of Dolly wearing short sleeves? Probably never…
The truth is she really does have tattoos, however, they don’t cover her entire body. She has a little heart that’s been spotted on her chest when she wears a deep-cut shirt. She’s also shown off her pastel bow tattoo to a fellow celeb, Roseanne Barr.
NEXT: Parton owns an unlikely business with locations in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and Branson, Missouri.
20. Parton forayed into dinner theater in 1988
Dolly Parton’s Stampede opened up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, treating guests to a show filled with Wild West-themed entertainment. The rodeo events, trick riding, and audience participation were a hit with visitors, so Parton thought that opening a second location made sense. In 1995, Dolly Parton’s Stampede opened a second location in Branson, Missouri, says MSN.
While watching a show, you can feast on a delicious four-course meal. You can pick from either the Family Feast, Vegetarian Feast or a Gluten Free Feast. Stampede is willing to accommodate food requests — just let them know beforehand!
NEXT: Her film and TV production company shares its name with a delicate seashell you can find on the beach.
21. Sandollar Productions is Parton’s film and TV production company
With former longtime manager Sandy Gallin, Parton owns Sandollar Productions, a film and TV production company that’s been behind a lot of shows and films you might like. Sandollar had a hand in producing a little film called Buffy the Vampire Slayer — you are probably more familiar with the TV show, right?
That’s ‘cause it didn’t do well in theaters. When the film came out, an exec at Sandollar (Gail Berman) thought it would make a good TV show, says CBR.com. IMDb also links Sandollar Productions to Sabrina, Father of the Bride, Fly Away Home, and more.
NEXT: Parton’s album Better Get To Livin’ and music after that were released on this very special record label.
22. Wouldn’t you expect Parton to have her own label?
She finally started one in 2007 — Dolly Records. From then on, she released music under that label starting with her album Better Get To Livin,’ released that same year. “It’s really the first mainstream country record Dolly has done in 17 years,” Danny Nozell told Billboard. He’s Parton’s manager and also serves as GM of Dolly Records, Billboard said in 2007.
Interestingly, Dolly Records were only planned to be a record label for Parton, not any other artists. This has been a common move for some artists — starting their own labels to release their music on. Labels have gotten a bad rap over the years. (See 30 Seconds to Mars’ documentary on it…)
NEXT: You won’t believe how much her “Better Day” tour earned the legendary country singer.
23. Parton’s “Better Day” tour earned $34 million
You can expect most of Parton’s tours to do well but this 2011 tour did particularly well! Selling 275,000 tickets, the 50-date world tour grossed $34 million — her most successful tour to date. It started in the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee (near Parton’s hometown) and ended in Melbourne, Australia’s Rod Laver Arena.
Parton was super excited to announce this tour, her website indicated. She’s quoted as saying: “I had a great time when we were in Europe on the last ‘Backwoods Barbie’ tour, and I expect to have even more fun on the upcoming ‘Better Day’ World Tour.”
NEXT: Parton spent a lot of money to recreate her childhood home.
24. Parton has multiple houses
Her childhood home in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee lacked indoor plumbing, electricity and was much too small for Parton and her 11 siblings. Parton bought the home (adding to her collection of homes) and hired her brother Bobby to restore it. However, she wanted the home to actually be functional — bring on the plumbing and electricity!
“I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it!” Parton told The Nate Berkus Show. Parton also has homes in Nashville and Brentwood, California.
NEXT: She once entered in a Dolly Parton look-alike drag queen contest and lost. Similarly to drag queens, however, Parton dumps a ton of money into this.
25. Stage costumes are her biggest splurges
Parton told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that she doesn’t care too much about fashion and just wants to wear what she likes. The Tennessee songbird is known for managing her money well but she does splurge on her often sparkly stage costumes. Interestingly, her well-known tall blonde hair and tight clothing style was inspired by the town tramp in her hometown.
With that town-tramp style, Parton has often added rhinestones, red lipstick, denim, shiny acrylic nails, jumpsuits, sparkly capri pants, and colorful prints. Sure what she wears might not be “in” right now, but nobody dresses as unique as Parton.
NEXT: Despite all her accolades, films and albums, her father was most proud of this.
26. She’s a charitable multi-millionaire
Parton has given back to the community in many ways. Notably, in 1995 she founded the Imagination Library, a non-profit which gives preschoolers free books. “Not long before he passed, he told me he was more proud of me for the Imagination Library than anything else I had ever done,” Parton told Paper.
The organization was a way to honor her late father who couldn’t read. Parton’s other charitable endeavors include “My People Fund” which gave families affected by fires in the Great Smoky Mountain wildfires $1,000 per month for six months to help them recover.
NEXT: Parton has accomplished a lot in her long life — even getting a cloned sheep named after her!
27. Parton’s age doesn’t slow her down
At the time of press, Parton is 73-years-old. “I love what I do. I have no plans to retire,” Everyday Health reported her saying. “The only reason I would quit would be if my husband was ill or if I was ill, and I needed to take care of him, or I needed to take care of me.”
“So far, I have been lucky and blessed,” says Parton.
NEXT: This recent award is much more fulfilling than the two Guinness World Records that she procured in 2018 — Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the U.S. Country Songs Chart and Most Hits on U.S. Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist.
28. She was awarded the 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year
Two days before the 2019 Grammys, Parton was awarded the MusiCares Person of the Year award on February 8. This MusiCares Foundation was started by the Recording Academy in 1989 to provide resources for musicians in need. Parton is a highly successful musician, but not all have found the same success as she.
Being a musician is a tough profession — when tragedy hits, they might not have the funds to get back on their feet. Parton was awarded the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2019 because of her numerous accolades and her great charity work.
NEXT: Remember her film 9 to 5? You can now enjoy an adaption of that flick in this format.
29. She’s released a musical, 9 to 5
9 to 5 is making its way on a new tour in the United Kingdom — Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Woking, and more — in late 2019. Want to see 9 to 5? You could buy a ticket to the United Kingdom. Or you could just watch the movie starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin.
The stage adaption (with music!) of this hilarious and well-loved movie is probably a sight for sore eyes, however. It originally appeared in 2008 and features a score by Parton herself.
NEXT: Parton’s had a huge impact on the world — her hometown has even dedicated a statue in her honor. She encourages other women to follow their dreams, too.
30. Her advice to other women in business: Believe in what you have to offer
It’s easy for even the most ambitious woman to get down on herself sometimes. Times have been changing but it’s still a man’s world through and through. Parton’s word to the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 might be inspiring for any lady feeling down in the dumps: “You need to really believe in what you’ve got to offer,”
“If you believe, that gives you strength,” Parton said. “In my early days…I really looked like easy prey to a lot of guys….If they were not paying close attention to what I was saying, I always said, ‘I look like a woman, but I think like a man and you better pay attention or I’ll have your money and I’ll be gone.'”
NEXT: Teaming up with these two singers proved to be a boon for Parton’s music career.
31. The album Trio put Parton back on the music map
We mentioned in slide number 14 that Parton’s popularity saw a slight slump in the 1980s. The singer bounced back with the album aptly named Trio, a collaboration with singers Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in 1987. It was a massive success, says MSN, and put Parton back in the limelight of the music world.
The trio released a Trio Box Set in 2016, Rolling Stone Magazine reported. It included two classic albums and 20 unreleased tracks. If you’re a major Trio fan, this is a box set that’s perfect to add to your collection.