Dolly Parton's girlish soprano and songs about old-time virtues made her a major country star in the early 1970s. Later in that decade, she wooed pop audiences and became a household name, her playful, self-deprecating comments about her blond sex-bomb image winning hearts as her finely crafted country-pop singles yielded a succession of more than 20 C&W Number One hits, including classics like "Here You Come Again," "Jolene," and "9 to 5." A self-titled theme park, television variety shows, and several successful films, including an Oscar nomination for her role in 9 to 5, in the 1980s helped cement Parton's status a singularly American superstar.
Parton grew up poor on a farm in the foothills of Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, the fourth of 12 children born to a farming couple. Her sister Stella later became a singer as well, and five other siblings also worked as professional musicians. Parton sang in church as a girl, and at age ten appeared on the The Cass Walker Progam, a TV show in Knoxville with members of her grade school class. She became a regular on Walker's radio show, where she performed until age 18. Parton appeared at the Grand Ole Opry at age 12, and her first single, "Puppy Love," was released by the blues-oriented Louisiana label Goldband.
One day after graduating high school, in 1964, she moved to Nashville and signed with Monument. Her first day in town, she met Carl Dean, whom she married two years later. Early recordings, in a rock vein, were not successful. Her big break came with "Dumb Blonde," a minor hit that peaked at Number 24 on the country chart. In 1967 she joined singer Porter Wagoner's syndicated country-music show, and "Miss Dolly," as she was called, became very popular with viewers. She signed to RCA, and the duo had many country hits, including "Just Someone I Used to Know" (1969) and "Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man" (1970). While with Wagoner, she charted over a dozen solo country hits, including "Joshua" (Number One, 1970) and "Coat of Many Colors" (Number Four, 1971).
In 1974 Parton left Wagoner completely, having released Jolene, the title track of which became her second Number One country hit and a minor pop crossover. Other singers began to take an interest in her work. Linda Ronstadt covered "I Will Always Love You" (which Parton wrote about leaving Porter Wagoner) in 1975 on Prisoner in Disguise, Emmylou Harris sang "Coat of Many Colors" that same year, and Maria Muldaur covered "My Tennessee Mountain Home" on her first record. The covers encouraged Parton to bring her country to the pop market, which she did with New Harvest. The LP was more rock-oriented and included a version of "Higher and Higher." She also broke away from the country circuit to play rock clubs.
Parton's first major pop single was "Here You Come Again," which went gold and hit Number Three in early 1978. The LP of the same name went platinum. She also hit the pop Top 20 that year with "Two Doors Down." Parton had successfully crossed over; "Baby, I'm Burnin'" (Number 25, 1978) even had some success in discos. Other Number One country hits of that time include "You're the Only One" (1979), "Starting Over Again" (1980), and "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You" (1980).
By 1980, Parton was a regular headliner in Las Vegas, and that year she earned an Oscar nomination for her film debut in 9 to 5 (costarring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin). Parton's recording of the title theme was a Number One hit in pop and country. In 1982 she costarred with Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Her other film credits include Rhinestone (with Sylvester Stallone, 1984), Steel Magnolias (with Julia Roberts and Shirley MacLaine, 1989), Straight Talk (with James Woods, 1992), the made-for-television Wild Texas Wind (with Gary Busey, 1992), and The Beverly Hillbillies (1993).
In 1976 she had hosted a syndicated music show, Dolly; her 1987 prime-time variety show of the same name on ABC did not fare as well and was canceled after one season.
Immediately before the release of Rhinestone Cowboy, Parton began a difficult period plagued by health problems. Through the 1980s she continued to score C&W Number One hits with "But You Know I Love You" (1981), "I Will Always Love You" (1982), the Bee Gees–written and –produced duet with Kenny Rogers, "Islands in the Stream" (1983), "Tennessee Homesick Blues" (1984), "Real Love" (another duet with Rogers, 1985), "Think About Love" (1985), "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" (1989), "Yellow Roses" (1989), and "Rockin' Years" (1991), a duet with Ricky Van Shelton.
Parton's most successful album of the period was Trio, a collection of traditional country songs performed with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. In 1987 the recording won a Grammy for Best Country Album by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 1999 the long-awaited followup, Trio II, was released and featured a Grammy-winning (Best Country Collaboration With Vocals) cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." In 1993 Parton teamed with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette for Honky Tonk Angels, an album featuring the songs of country singers such as Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells (who appears on the title track).
In 1986 Parton opened Dollywood, a Smoky Mountain theme park. She has also established the Dolly Parton Wellness and Rehabilitation Center of Sevier County Medical Center as well as the Dollywood Foundation, which works to lower the high school–dropout rate in her home county. In 1994 she released her autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Unfinished Business. In 1996 Parton picked up her eighth career Country Music Association Award, for Vocal Event of the Year, for a new version of "I Will Always Love You" (Number 15 C&W, 1995) recorded with Vince Gill for a greatest-hits set.
After 1996's Treasures, an album of covers, Parton moved to Decca and recorded Hungry Again, a rootsy collection of self-penned songs that kicked off what many critics viewed as an artistic reawakening for the veteran performer. In 1994 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and cut her first bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue, for the independent Sugar Hill label. The set featured an all-star band of bluegrass pros (including mandolin ace Sam Bush and Dobro player Jerry Douglas, among others) and went on to win Parton Album of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards and a pair of Grammy nominations. She followed it in 2001 with a second bluegrass effort, Little Sparrow, which in addition to several new originals featured such left-field covers as Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" and Collective Soul's gospel-rock anthem "Shine."
A third Sugar Hill collection, Halos and Horns (Number Four country, Number 58 pop, 2002), found Parton continuing her foray into folk and bluegrass, this time boldly taking on Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she released For God and Country (Number 23 country, 2003), an album of patriotic and religious standards as well as originals. She returned to folk and bluegrass for her eclectic covers album Those Were the Days (Number Nine country, Number 48 pop, 2005), in which she teamed with an variety of singers including Yusuf Islam for a version of his classic as Cat Stevens, "Where Do the Children Play"; Tommy James on his 1968 hit with the Shondells, "Crimson & Clover"; and Norah Jones and Lee Ann Womack for the folk standard "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
In late 2006 the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honored Parton with a lifetime award for her contribution to the arts. Two years later, after years of traveling off the beaten musical path, Parton returned on her own label with her first album of mainstream country in nearly a decade, Backwoods Barbie (Number Two country, Number 17 pop, 2008), with a title song written for the Broadway version of 9 to 5.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).