Dolly Parton lived in a shack with 11 siblings and could hardly bathe regularly.
Her father couldn’t read but still supported her and her family.
She stays humble and annually donates millions of dollars.
Even though she has amassed massive fame and fortune, Dolly Parton has remained humble amid her stellar career as a musician, businesswoman, and philanthropist. It’s no surprise that success has followed her along the way.
As someone who grew up in a large family, Parton understands the struggles of poverty. She is now a highly-influential Hollywood star, and despite her accomplishments, she has never forgotten her humble beginnings.
The music superstar, whose real name is Dolly Rebecca Parton, was welcomed by her parents on January 19, 1946, in Sevierville, Tennessee, on Locust Ridge. She was born in a one-bedroom cabin and had 11 siblings.
Robert Lee Parton, her father, was a sharecropper who couldn’t read or write due to a lack of access to education, and he supplemented his income by working in construction.
Growing up, the country legend, raised by a musically-oriented family, was constantly surrounded by music. Despite their difficult living circumstances, they found joy and connected through singing.
Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens, a performer, taught her daughter how to sing. She played different music for her, like church songs and Elizabethan ballads that had been in her family for generations.
Meanwhile, Parton’s grandfather, Jake Robert Owens, was a minister and the composer of the hymn “Singing His Praise.” Several of Parton’s siblings became interested in music, and some worked in her family band.
Parton also had an uncle named Sam Owens, a musician and singer-songwriter in his own right. Her uncle loved music and was the first person to notice that she had the potential to become a famous musician when she was a child.
Parton’s siblings include Stella Mae, Cassie Nan, twins Freida Estelle and Rachel Ann, Willadeene, David Wilburn, Coy Denver, Bobby Lee, Robert, and Larry. Robert died in 2021 after a battle with cancer, while Larry died as a newborn.
As the fourth among 12 siblings, Parton frequently helped her parents care for the younger children. She lived with her family under one little roof.
At the time, their log cabin only had one bedroom and one living room, and there was no running water or electricity. The property still stands to this day.
Parton has always been open about discussing her humble beginnings or how this influenced her views on life. She came from a large family with limited resources, so she is familiar with the challenges of being poor.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Parton reminisced about her childhood in the mountains of rural Tennessee, focusing on the early memories that brought her the most joy. She said:
“Of course, not everything was perfect, but I prefer to remember the best of times.”
She remembered the days spent with her siblings, singing at church, and completing chores she wasn’t particularly fond of. She also reminisced about the tons of laughter she shared with her family.
Parton shared how her brothers and sisters would constantly sing and she would always try to get them to be her backup singers when she tried to pretend to be the lead singer on stage, but they were completely disinterested.
Their little house, Parton recalled, was always packed with her siblings, leading to a lot of teasing and bickering. However, despite the chaos, they always stuck together as a family.
She added that they spent most of the time outside because the cabin was too small for them to hang out comfortably. The space outside served as an extension for sharing meals, entertainment, and playing games.
Parton said her family was always grateful to have food and a roof over their heads. It was not exactly what they wanted, but her parents always emphasized that there were other families who suffered more than they did. She recalled:
“We were poor but I never felt poor.”
Despite her family’s modest beginnings, Parton’s passion and musical talent would eventually lead her to become one of the most successful and beloved country music performers of all time.
Childhood in Poverty
Despite having fond memories of her childhood, Parton shared growing up in poverty meant living in tough conditions too. She practically lived in a shack with her family of 14 and had limited access to basic necessities.
In a Playboy magazine interview with journalist Lawrence Grobel in March 1978, she shared that she was only eight years old when she first saw a toilet and bathroom in her aunt’s home and was fascinated by them.
Laughing at how innocent and ignorant they were then, Parton shared that she and her siblings were afraid to use the toilet, thinking it would suck them in. “It was just really weird,” she recalled.
Bathing every day was not a luxury for Parton and her family. They would often make their own soap, and on occasion, they would pile into the truck and drive to the river to wash in its waters.
There was a creek nearby, but the river was their preferred bathing spot, as it was like a “big bath” for all of them. They would swim together and wash each other’s hair while their homemade soap flowed down the river.
Telling a joke about how dirty they were back then, Parton said it would have left a ring around the Little Pigeon River, likening their river bath to a “bathtub.” Bathing in the river was a summertime ritual for them.
During the winter, the entire family would have a pan of water to wash with as much as possible. When Grobel asked how many times she and her family would bathe in the winter season, Parton replied:
“Well, we bathed once a week whether we needed it or not, as the saying goes.”
Bathing became more important to Parton when she reached high school. She would take a bath every night due to the unhygienic behaviors of her younger siblings during bedtime. She revealed:
“The kids peed on me every night. We slept three and four in the bed. I would wash every night. And as soon as I go to bed, the kids would wet on me, and I’d have to get up in the morning and do the same thing.”
Unafraid to share her thoughts about it, Parton explained that even though getting peed on might sound unsanitary to some, the urine was a good source of warmth in the winter.
Living in the mountains, she recalled how cold it would get at home and even said it was almost a pleasure to be peed on because the room was as chilly as the outside. She said they would all bundle up in bed.
Giving Away Millions
Despite their poverty, Parton has described her family as happy and rich in other ways. Growing up made her modest, and after she earned millions, she never stopped taking care of people in need, much like her family in her childhood. She remarked:
“My family will always be my greatest love. Sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle, but there’s an element of family in everything I do.”
Parton said her family inspired her music and her theme park, Dollywood and Dixie Stampede—one of the shows in the park— are intended to enable families to spend time together and enjoy themselves.
In 2022, Forbes estimated Parton’s net worth at $375 million, making her a self-made millionaire. Her financial success stemmed mainly from her music publishing ownership rights and her theme park.
She controls over 3,000 songs, including the highly acclaimed track “I Will Always Love You,” which she refused to share with Elvis Presley in the 1970s. This decision proved profitable when Whitney Houston covered the song in the 1990s.
Parton also receives a publishing fee for her songs when used in movies, broadcasted, or sold. Forbes estimated that her songs are worth $150 million and that she has earned $6 million to $8 million in royalties.
However, the music icon’s massive wealth comes from her famous theme park, Dollywood, one of Tennessee’s biggest tourist attractions. It reportedly brings in $3 million a year.
The country singer invested in the theme park in 1968, when it was still called Pigeon Forge. She later renamed it “Dollywood,” a play on the word “Hollywood.” The park includes a hotel and a water park.
Parton also recently launched a new company called Doggy Parton, which is a play on her famous name. Her love of animals inspired the company, which produces dog toys and clothing lines.
Parton’s childhood experiences taught her that sharing her success with others is important. In addition to being a musician and businesswoman, she is active in several charitable and social causes and has donated millions to those in need.
In 2016, Parton joined forces with a group of musicians to raise $13 million for the recovery efforts of survivors of the East Tennessee wildfires, which hit the state’s Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
Other renowned artists, such as Chris Stapelton, Kenny Rogers, Lauren Alaina, Alison Krauss, Reba McEntire, Cyndi Lauper, and Chris Young, played at the “Smoky Mountains Rise: A Benefit for the My People Fund” concert.
In 2017, Parton gave a $1 million gift to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after her niece received leukemia treatment from them.
In addition to providing financial assistance to those affected by natural disasters, Parton made a significant contribution to the healthcare sector by generously donating a substantial amount of money.
She made headlines in 2020 when she donated $1 million to vaccine research during the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted people worldwide. Her contribution helped in the creation of the Moderna vaccine.
Parton is also known for her lifelong dedication to promoting early childhood literacy. Through her non-profit program, Imagination Library, she sends free books to over one million children every month.
Inspired by her father’s own experience with illiteracy, in 1995, Parton and Robert Lee founded a non-profit organization to help children learn to read and write. It started in eastern Tennessee, but it has grown and now helps kids in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The literacy program has reached other countries as well, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In 2018, Parton revealed at the Library of Congress that the program had given out its 100 millionth book.
Parton never imagined her campaign would be that successful, only wanting to help her father and her hometown when it started. “But then it just took its own wings, and I guess it was meant to be,” she cheerfully shared.
Parton was also happy that her father took great pride in making a meaningful contribution toward something worthwhile. He was able to see the fruits of their labor before passing away in 2000.
Furthermore, her aspirations for the Imagination Library are ambitious. She admitted that she has big dreams and wants to give away a total of a billion books within her lifetime.
Even though Parton had a tough childhood, she never forgot how important family and community are. She used her success to give back, donating millions of dollars annually to various charitable causes, including education, health, and disaster relief.
Her humble beginnings taught her the value of hard work, determination, and the power of music to bring people together. And as she looks back on her life, she remembers the joy, laughter, and love that filled her childhood home and the family who supported her every step of the way.