Guideposts|June/July 2020

Dolly Parton is a national treasure. But her origins couldn’t be more humble

HOW DID SOMEONE LIKE ME, born in a cabin on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, end up where I have in life? The answer is both complicated and simple. I like the simple part. I dreamed big and I prayed big. Then I worked like the dickens at the opportunities the Lord put before me.

We didn’t have much back then in that one-room cabin with the dirt floor, even less than that most times. Daddy was a sharecropper and later a farmer, a man who worked in the fields until his hands bled to provide for us, his 12 children. He couldn’t read, but he was still one of the smartest men I ever knew.

I was the fourth child in the lineup (you could say almost all of us were middle children!), and when I was trying to make my grand entrance, Mama was having a lot of trouble with the process. Back then in the hills with us rural folk, you didn’t go to the hospital. You had your baby at home. But with me they needed a doctor quick. Daddy got on a horse and galloped into town, where there was an old church and a Methodist minister who happened to be a doctor. Dr. Robert F. Thomas rode back with Daddy and got to Mama just in time. There’s a good chance I might not be here without him. I’m pretty sure I came out crying big. I bet I could have hit high C even then! Which brings me to my first dream.


I wrote my first song at age five. Mama had made me a corn cob doll with beautiful corn silk hair, a dress made of shells and black eyes Daddy had put on with a fire poker. “Little tiny tassel top,” I sang to it, “I love you an awful lot / Hope you never go away / I want you to stay!”

I would take a tin can, put it on a tobacco stake, stick it in a crack on our porch and serenade the pigs and chickens and ducks in the yard. At first my siblings guffawed, but then they noticed something: I could sing. I took notice too.

We Partons sang in church and played our own instruments too. My uncle gave me a guitar when I was eight. I strummed it till my fingernails cracked. I learned to play fiddle, like most everyone in the family did. More and more, music felt like what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It became my first big dream, and naturally, I asked God if I was on the right track and if he would help, to make this dream ours together.


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June/July 2020