Many already know to whom I am referring.
Very few men, if any, could honestly make the statement I am about to make. I married and climb into bed each night with a woman who slept with Dolly. Yep. I’m a traditional sort of guy, so making this admission is not what I normally would do publicly. However, it’s time to come out of the closet, so to speak, and deliver the truth.
I will be honest, it turned the crank on my tractor when my wife confessed after we had married, if you know what I mean. The Mountain Songbird is the gal that many a young guy drooled over back in my day. That included me. So I was a bit confused, but wanted to know more.
OK – time to come clean. My wife did not sleep with just Dolly, she also slept with her sister, Stella. Well, actually, she slept with all of the Parton kids who had been brought into the world at that stage. I guess you also have to add in their parents, Avie Lee and Lee. By now you have probably figured out this meant sleepovers as a kid. Busted.
For what it’s worth, the beds were all over the old mess of a cabin and the kids slept sideways so more would be able to sleep in each bed.
My wife and Stella are the same age and Dolly is three years older. My wife and Stella were friends and classmates growing up until wild child Stella ran away as a 15 year old teenager, got herself pregnant, and crashed and burned with a divorce at age 21. My wife started first grade at the little schoolhouse with them at age 4, so Dolly was two grades ahead of her. Life in those hills and around Locust Ridge were a bit different back then.
Everything was pretty much like Dolly describes and sings about it. She is a caring, straight shooter as a person as well as an incredible story teller and spunky as all get out. Her family was dirt poor. My wife’s family was just poor. She said she always felt rich after spending time in the Parton home, but she really liked them. They made do the best they could with what they had. The Coat of Many Colors was very real, just like the song and movie represents. Many of her classmates’ reactions to it were very real as well. Dolly was popular, but a lot of kids from families with more made fun of her. The ridicule did not sit well with my wife and friends at all.
As she started singing locally as a young girl, it got worse, not better. She would participate in talent shows in school and the area all the way through high school to gain experience. The same bunch continued to make fun of her even after Knoxville business and showman, Cas Walker, found out about her and took her under his wing at age 10. He showcased her in his regional version of the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember watching her on that show when she was a young teenager at my grandparents home when we would visit. There are plenty of bios and stories about her life as well as that of Cas on the web. It is all there if you want to know more.
Dolly was not to be deterred. She had resolve and a plan. She also had people who believed in her and helped her achieve her dreams.
I know all of this to be true because my wife, her family, and most of her classmates and friends were there as it happened. They still talk about those days at the class reunions we attend.
The ridicule behind her back may have worsened beyond what it was except there was a guy from a more well to do family in town who never made fun of her, defended her and became great friends with her. He squashed a lot of it in high school. It was this guy…
This article on Gary gives his distinguished biography. He graduated in the same class as my wife as the class president. For many years Dolly would tell the story of him being her “boyfriend” in high school. It was sort of a running joke between them and the media as Gary was dating his future wife, Sandy, back in those days.
More on Gary later in a future story. We have great respect for Gary and Sandy. In our view, Gary has always been one of the good guys even with some RINO associations and his southern Dem political background. Telling a story about him leads to another, even bigger story, however. So we will save it for a later time.
Eighteen Years Old and Ready, Set, Go
Dolly left for Nashville after graduation and after a few difficult years later surfaced as Norma Jean’s replacement in the Porter Wagoner show. For some reason the making fun of her stopped locally and suddenly many of those same folks claimed to be her good friend. Imagine that, liars and hypocrites doing what they do.
Obviously, this photo was made before modifications to the rack of the carriage.
From this point on I just want to relate a handful of our personal connections, events, and observations.
I will start with Mr. Rhinestone himself. He was one of my dad’s favorites, so when his tour bus rolled into the area, Dad would round up the family and off we would go. Guess I heard Carroll County Accident , Skid Row Joe and the Green, Green Grass of Home a hundred times, or least that’s how it seemed. I would endure Porter until it was time for Dolly to hit the stage. That lilting, bluegrass, sweet songbird voice was one of the prettiest I had ever heard. Her trademark giggle was captivating. Joy radiated out of her. She just loved singing and entertaining folks.
As a young teenager, Dad and I went together to one of Porter and Dolly’s shows in a 300 seat covered open amphitheater in a podunk town in southwest Ohio in the late 60s. After the show I briefly met Porter and then, Dolly, in person as everybody in the show greeted the crowd. My legs turned to jelly. Many years later I did meet the woman of my dreams not named Dolly from the same hometown. I did not know she slept with her and Stella until after we married. I mean, slept over with the Parton’s. Sorry.
About 15 years after Dad and I went to that show and long after he and Dolly split up in 1974, I had the occasion to see Porter in a small concert setting again in Missouri. My soon to be ex’s cousin played keyboards in his band for a couple of years after the Wagoneers were no longer around as Porter’s popularity declined. He had tried to modernize his sound, “try” being the operative word. Some concoction like Porter Wagoner goes Urban Cowboy, which was popular around then. Yuck. By then, Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You” had already happened in a big way as had the start of her film career. It would be another decade before Whitney Houston would take the song worldwide with The Bodyguard.
We all had dinner together after the show and Porter told stories. It was an enjoyable evening and he seemed like a nice guy. The lawsuit he filed against Dolly in 1979 was still in place, but nothing was said about it that night.
As my life was happening in the delta, my wife’s was going on here in the hills of east TN. With Dolly’s help, her parents had moved to a better home near to my wife’s parents’ new home not far from the lake. There would be a wave from her limo or an occasional “how ya doing” as she visited. My wife would see many of her siblings in town or handle their banking needs. Her parents would visit with Dolly’s from time to time. Avie Lee, Dolly’s mom, did her banking with my wife. So, she was able to keep up some with what was happening with the family and Dolly’s life.
Well before we met, my wife once went to Nashville for bank training with other lady employees. They saw where Dolly would be performing at the Grand Ole Opry while they were in town, so they bought tickets and went. The other ladies did not know Dolly as well as my wife and did not think Dolly would even remember her since she was not around town as much anymore and had become such a big star. My wife took up the challenge and gave a note to an usher to tell Dolly she was there and just wanted to say hello. A few minutes later the usher returned and asked her to follow him backstage. She waved bye to her coworkers and was seated backstage to watch Dolly’s performance. They briefly visited with each other afterwards, hugged, and Dolly was off to other things. My wife strutted her way back to the group with a big, “Told ya so!” She was the envy of all of them for weeks. It was just a small example of something important the world would see later – that Dolly did not forget those who were kind to her and took care of the folks she cared about.
Not long after this my wife and I met at the banking school as I discussed in a previous story. A year after we married I came home from work and she met me with an excited look. Our honeymoon was in the rear view, so I knew it was not about me coming home. I asked and she told me it had been announced that Dolly was involved in Silver Dollar City. They were changing the name to Dollywood and she would be doing some big things to improve it. Tourism had been king around here for quite awhile. But to have Dolly come home at the height of her popularity and grow SDC into her vision of Dollywood – well, that was big time. The Hershend family of Branson, MO, the owners of SDC, had made the deal of their lives. So had Dolly.
A lot of people in her position would not dream of coming back and helping an area that had not embraced her as they should have in her first 18 years of life after running with the big dogs around the world. But that’s not Dolly. She rose above all that and saw the need, the poverty that was still deeply ingrained in these hills. It was personal to her. She wanted to help in a major way, not paint lipstick on a pig just for personal gain and publicity. She loved her people and had a plan. And what a plan it turned out to be.
Dolly and Dollywood put Sevier County, TN into the lives of many, many more people around the world. You can look up history and data on the web to learn more. When doing so I also hope you will spend time on the website of her Imagination Library, which she founded in 1995 to draw attention to childhood literacy. It sends books out free to all children aged 5 and under in America, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. Yep – well over 150 million books since it opened. Just ask online and they send.
One of my BIL’s initiatives as the leader of a local civic organization years ago is below. Many have seen or had photos made by this…
He was very involved in the promotion of Dollywood and all of the related enterprises in his civic organization roles as well as many other folks in the area. He and his son were even in Dollywood TV advertising promotions that were shown nationwide back then. For a young, enterprising real estate broker and rental property developer/owner it was a big deal. It was also totally unexpected as he and others only wanted to let her know how much she was loved and respected. It was just Dolly’s way of helping a longterm family friend.
I could tell you the personal stories of dozens of local friends and family members who have good incomes from jobs and their lives changed for the better simply because she made Dollywood and the many other related businesses happen starting in 1986. We could then multiply them by thousands of other stories. It all ripples from there. Lives positively impacted forever. You get the gist of it.
All employees of Dolly’s enterprises have the opportunity to meet her. She doesn’t isolate herself. Many of them have their Dolly stories to tell as I am doing here. She generally comes back for the season opening parades, although she stepped down as the Grand Marshall a few years back after 32 years of doing it. She just felt it was time for everybody to focus on the contributions of others and giving them the honor.
Ever since her Dreammore Resort (hotel, restaurants, spa, etc) opened in 2015, my wife and I enjoy our version of a staycation there for her birthday in January, or, at times around Christmas. The musicals and park lighting are really enjoyable at Dollywood over the holidays. We spend a few days pretending to be tourists in the area in the slower, off-season cooler months. We enjoy hot apple cider, hot cocoa, or coffee in the evenings by one of its two huge fireplaces and relax in the beautiful environment she has created there with an occasional musician providing entertainment.
The staff was kind enough to let us tour her suite in the resort since they know my wife was a childhood friend and classmate. It is exactly as you would picture it – frilly, colorful and over the top. Phoofy is our term for it. The interesting thing is she rarely stays there. She stays in a home nearby or in her customized tour bus that is parked on site depending on her schedule. Per the staff, most of the time it is on the bus. She saves the suite for family, other guests and VIPs.
It is worth the stay at the Dreammore just to eat the fried chicken in the Hearth and Song restaurant. I’m only partially joking. It’s Avie Lee’s recipe. It simply ruins you. Best I have ever eaten. You might even try Avie Lee’s Stone Soup. Locals and tourists alike go there.
People ask why the butterfly symbol is everywhere. Simple answer, it came from her youth. She admires their gentleness and beauty. She sees a bit of herself in them. In her own words, “Butterflies don’t sting, they don’t bite, and they are so beautiful. And I just kind of related to them with my own personality. I claimed them as my little symbol.” She tells stories about chasing after them as a child and getting in trouble once for getting lost while doing it.
Dolly announced in 2021 at the height of the COVID mess that there is a 10 year development plan in place that entails a $500+ million investment. She’s not kidding. Over the years she has greatly increased her ownership interest in Dollywood and the surrounding properties, resorts and businesses associated with it. There is already another 302 room lodging resort under construction with three more planned for the ten year period. Major expansion of areas within Dollywood itself, other resorts and businesses are also underway. Dollywood’s visits are now nearly 3 million annually with only being open about 9 months of the year. With all the development that is underway they expect visitation to double by the end of the ten year plan. Obviously, she is also a brilliant businesswoman with great vision.
Hopefully, you have learned a few new things about Dolly. Love. Acceptance. Happiness. Family. Education. Fun. Hospitality. Perseverance. Food. Shelter. Jobs. Loyalty. Peace. In this world of polarization and disunity she refrains from imposing her personal views on others and instead, seeks to find unity and common ground. She steadfastly has refused to talk politics, ever, which is how she was able to develop a good relationship even with Jane Fonda during 9 to 5 filming. However, she leaves little doubt that the two would not agree on the subject, so it was best to set the rules of never talking about it. The media and special interest groups will bait her, but she rarely bites the hook. She has too much respect for her family’s roots to do that and would rather see folks come together than fight. She handles adversity and people talking the same way she did as a young child growing up on Locust Ridge. Full steam ahead. Don’t pay them no mind, bless their hearts.
She’s not perfect and will be the first one to tell you so. She has voiced regrets like all of us, which includes her role in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Just our opinion, but we think she has associated with Hollyweird liberals and leftist music folks for far too long, which can damage your brain. Hopefully, she will spend much more of her later years with her people here in the mountains or home with Carl. We disliked the Hershend’s and her giving in to the COVIDiocy with their park policies and such. We also know they had the government, media and legal community breathing down their necks just waiting for them to make a misstep so they could mess everything up. So, they took the good with the bad and made the best of it.
Place all that aside and know that she still has the music of her momma’s side of the family running through her veins that was a major part of her raisin’ with a grandfather that was a mountain preacher man who made a strong impact on her young life along with a talented musician uncle who dedicated a lot of his life to helping with songwriting and other aspects of her music career.
We see her as this, a part of Dolly that is frequently overlooked by the world. This is a moment my wife and I will never, ever forget on national TV one night in 1989. An incredibly written song from Don Francisco that she covered like none other before or since.
Every time we visit, we wonder about the music that is recorded on that CD she made that was placed in this time capsule’s treasure box at the Dreammore Resort that is to be opened and played on her 100th birthday. It is titled, “My Place in History” and is intended to be her last. We can only imagine what will be sung from the heart and lips of The Mountain Songbird. We just know it will be as special as she has been, a gift to the world.