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Dolly Parton Was Born into Poverty with 11 Siblings — She Is Always Proud of Her ‘Trash’ Background

Karabo Baloyi
Feb 20, 2022
11:00 P.M.
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Musical icon Dolly Parton has had a career spanning more than three decades. With hits such as "I Will Always Love You," "Here You Come Again," and " "9 to 5," she has inspired people all over the world. Her life story is as inspiring as her career success.

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Her unique vocals are not her only talent. She has written many hits, such as "Jolene," based loosely on her eventful life. She has won 13 Country Music Awards and many more significant awards, and in 1999, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

Dolly has also starred in popular films such as "9 to 5" and “Steel Magnolias." In 1986 she opened her famous "Dollywood” theme park in Tennessee, which is still open today. She continues to record new music and tours regularly. 

Country music singer Dolly Parton had a difficult childhood but she is proud of her background | Source: Getty Images

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HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Dolly was born on January 19, 1946. She was one of 12 children growing up poor in rural Appalachia. She and her family lived in a one-room cabin, and her parents were farmers. Money was always a challenge for the family, who struggled to get by. 

Her parents met and married as teenagers. "By the time they were 35 and 37, they had 12 kids – six girls, six boys. We just were mountain people, grew up in the church," she said. She would create make-shift mics and perform for her parents' farm animals. 

She also sang in the church. She began writing songs soon after receiving her first guitar from a relative. Her uncle taught her to play the guitar once he saw how passionate she was about music. She said:

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"We grew up knowing Jesus loved us, and through God, all things are possible, so I've carried that through my life and gathered a lot of strength from that as well.”

Country singer Dolly Parton poses for a portrait in circa 1955 in Tennessee | Source: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Dolly's childhood was a difficult one mired in poverty. She wrote about it in many songs, including "Coat of Many Colors," which reminds her of her childhood every time she sings it. Her family's reliance on their faith has deeply influenced her career. 

She also said that although her family didn't have much, they were rich in everything money couldn't buy, like love, understanding, and kindness. Her family's love and reliance on God help explain why her music resonates with so many people.

RISE TO STARDOM

Dolly began writing music early on. At 10, she began performing professionally, appearing on local television and radio stations in Knoxville, Tennessee. At 13, she made her debut on Grand Ole Pry, one of her father's favorite country music concerts.

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Country singer Dolly Parton performs onstage wearing a yellow dress, in 1975, Los Angeles, California | Source: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Her grandmother unknowingly influenced Dolly's distinctive fashion style; she would try on her clothes while preparing for her performances to the animals on the farm. "My poor grandma would say, 'Where's my shoulder pads?" she said

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While in school, Dolly worked on her music career, recording for three different music labels before graduating from high school. "Puppy Love" was her first recorded song at just 12 years old. Her style then was inspired by musicians such as Kitty Wells.

Dolly had always been clear about her dreams. She worked hard on her singing and songwriting skills throughout her life. Speaking on how she made her dreams come true, she said, "I imagined it, I dreamed it, I worked for it, and God was good enough to let me have it."

Dolly Parton performs during the Billboard Women In Music event on December 10, 2020 | Source: 2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images for Billboard

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Amid her meteoric rise to fame, she never forgot her childhood. She has incorporated stories of her childhood into her music, which helps her remember her parents and all the people around her while she grew up. Her strong family unit helped her reach for her dreams. 

STRONG PRIDE FROM HER "TRASH” BACKGROUND

Dolly always spoke of her love for her background. Regardless of how difficult it was, she is reminded of her childhood when she performs. She said that the older she gets, the more sentimental she gets about her childhood. 

Despite some people calling her "white trash" and “hillbilly" these derogatory terms thrown at her, Dolly remains proud of her background. She explains: "To me, that keeps you humble; that keeps you good. And it doesn't matter how hard you try to outrun it — if that's who you are, that's who you are."

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Dolly Parton during an interview on November 20, 2019 | Source: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Dolly believes that her childhood made her who she is today and would never trade it for anything else. Her childhood created the spiritual base that helped her remain grounded on who she is, regardless of her success. 

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She added that her parents were not surprised when she had her breakthrough in the music industry. They could see how passionate she was about her music and how hard she worked to improve her talent. They supported her dreams throughout her life. 

GIVING BACK TO HER COMMUNITY

At 75 years old, Dolly has not slowed down in her music and business ventures. She co-authored a book with James Patterson, released a new fragrance, and even penned an award-winning production deal with Netflix. While she remains busy, her philanthropic initiatives continue to grow. 

Jennifer Nettles and Dolly Parton at The Voice Holiday Celebration | Source: Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

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In 2020, she donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which was used to fund research for the Moderna vaccine against Covid-19. She added that she felt skeptical about being on the cover of  "People Magazine" as one of the people of the year. 

Her Dollywood Foundation also raised money to assist flood victims in Tennesse in October 2020. Her "Imagination Library" project, aimed at improving literacy rates for as many children as possible, has donated 170 million books to children under five years old. 

"I'm kind of addicted to the feeling of giving. Knowing that I'm doing something good for someone else," Dolly said. But she is not very comfortable with being recognized for these philanthropic efforts. Dolly has no desire to be worshiped for her charity work and believes in being an excellent example. 

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