Happy Birthday, Dolly Parton! Here's Why We'll Always Love You
A tribute to the incomparable, irresistible country music legend as she turns 75
En español | "I'm like a cartoon,” Dolly Parton once said. “I can see it now — people will be rolling me around in a wheelchair and I'll still have my big hair, nails, my high heels and my boobs stuck out!"
The country music icon turns 75 on Jan. 19, and she's still got all that, minus the wheelchair. Known for her hyperfeminine style, lovely voice, stellar songwriting and rural Tennessee background (she was one of 12 children raised in a one-room cabin), Dolly has one of the most impressive legacies in show business: eight Grammys won, more than 100 million records sold and an empire worth an estimated $500 million that includes films, books, a production company and the Dollywood theme park.
But there's so much more to the star — creator of timeless songs like “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” — beyond her giant sales figures and outsized persona. “I believe that there is in that one woman more talent per molecule than any other person on the planet,” Ken Burns gushed in a 2019 interview with AARP about his Country Music documentary. “I love Dolly. She's fantastic."
Here are 10 reasons we, too, will always love her (with assists from her own Dollyisms).
1. Her humility
A superstar who never lost touch with her roots, Dolly addressed her “dirt poor” upbringing with candor, humor and even gratitude for the lessons it provided. “I'm proud of my hillbilly, white trash background,” she told Southern Living. “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."
2. Her blonde ambition
Dolly was determined to be a famous singer. In 2009, she described the night she graduated from high school, in 1964: “We were all asked to stand up and talk about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. And everybody had a different story. And when it came my time, I stood right up there. I said, ‘I'm going to Nashville and I'm going to be a star.’ Well, the whole place laughed out loud. And I was so embarrassed, ‘cause I thought, ‘How odd. Why is everybody laughing? ‘Cause that is what I'm going to do.’ “
3. Her brains
“Dumb Blonde,” Dolly's first song to chart on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart, was released in 1966, just as the platinum bombshell was pushing to find her way in a male-dominated industry that tended to objectify women. Her vocals were sweet, but the lyrics sent a tough feminist message. “I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb,” she's said more than once. “And I know I'm not blonde."
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4. Her long-lasting love
At age 18, she met Carl Thomas Dean in a Nashville laundromat; they fell in love at first sight, married in 1966 and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016 by renewing their vows. He is rarely seen with her in public. The key to their lasting bond? “Stay gone!” she told People. “I travel a lot, but we really enjoy each other when we're together.” Pure & Simple, her 2016 album of love songs, was inspired by their relationship.
5. Her kindness toward children
Dolly and Carl never became parents, but she's found a way to engage with children through philanthropic projects, including her Imagination Library, which has provided 100 million books to kids. She once told Oprah Winfrey: “I didn't have children because I believed that God didn't mean for me to have kids, so everybody's kids could be mine."
6. Her business savvy
This is a woman who said “no” to Elvis. In 1974, Dolly released “I Will Always Love You” as a musical goodbye to duet partner Porter Wagoner, after her decision to leave his TV show. The song was an instant classic and Elvis Presley had expressed interest in covering it. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out to negotiate a deal that would have forced Dolly to sign away half her publishing rights. She was tempted but wisely declined, and the song has made her a fortune — especially after Whitney Houston's version in 1992.
7. Her flashy fashion sense
Dolly admits that she modeled herself after the town tramp and has often said she'd never stoop so low as to be fashionable. Celeb watchers who relish nitpicking red carpet ensembles applaud Dolly's sky-high heels, glittery getups and massive hairdos (all wigs). “I like all that frilly stuff,” she has told Jay Leno. “Like I've always said, it's a good thing I was a girl or I'd definitely have been a drag queen!"
8. Her bosom buddies
Dolly's ample chest is inseparable from her image, and she doesn't dodge the plastic surgery query. “People always ask me if they're mine,” she's said. “Yes, they are. All bought and paid for.” (Fun fact: Dolly the sheep was named after her because the animal was cloned by using a cell removed from a ewe's mammary gland.)
9. Her giving back
Dolly has supported and funded numerous charity efforts, including literacy, AIDS research and relief for wildfire victims. Most recently, she donated $1 million toward research that produced Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine.
10. Her humor
Folksy, self-deprecating and quick with a quip, Dolly has comedic chops most stand-ups would envy. Her snappiest barbs are aimed at herself. Asked to choose between big breasts or big hair, she snapped back, “I couldn't pick one. I'd have to pick three.” In her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, she writes, “I tried every diet in the book. I tried some that weren't in the book. I tried eating the book. It tasted better than most of the diets.” And she once insisted, “I look just like the girl next door, if you happen to live next door to an amusement park."
Happy birthday, Dolly!