The Unglamorous Beginning To Dolly Parton's Country Music Career

Dolly Parton may be known as the blinged-out queen of country music today, but early on in her career, she had a decidedly unglamorous start. In fact, as she told Reese Witherspoon in a 2018 "Shine On with Reese" interview, when Parton first started performing, she lived in her uncle's car.

That a car became Parton's home for a time probably isn't all that unexpected. After all, she's never shied away from talking about her humble roots. Far from it, over the years, she's made countless references to her upbringing in a poor household in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. In particular, she's spoken about the lack of plumbing in her childhood home. 

Speaking to Playboy in 1978, she shared that she and her siblings had been a little scared to use their aunt's flushing toilet the first time they saw it. She'd also shared that the way she and her 11 siblings bathed depended on the season, as they didn't have a bath or shower in the house. In warmer months, they used homemade soap and headed down to the river. In winter, they'd have a pan of warm water inside the house — to share. Tough as it sounds, though, that certainly helped Parton prepare for the early days of her career. 

At the age of 10, Parton started touring — and unsurprisingly, staying in hotels wasn't an option. Instead, she and her uncle, songwriter Billy Owens, lived in his car in between gigs. 

Dolly Parton slept in a car and washed up at gas stations

Getting to go on the road and tour Knoxville and Tennessee certainly brought Dolly Parton closer to the life she'd always dreamed of, but it required more of the same, in terms of washing up. "I'd wash my hair in the filling station bathrooms," she revealed to Reese Witherspoon during "Shine On with Reese" (via Page Six). As for the stage makeup she'd apply, she added that that was all done using the car's mirror. Parton wasn't exactly phased by that, though. On top of having experience with finding creative ways to wash up, she said that the gas stations and in-car glam sessions were simply the reality of the situation. 

One thing that may have been slightly more glamorous than what she was used to, though, was the sleeping arrangement she and her uncle Billy Owens had. "My bedroom was the backseat and [Owens'] was the front seat," she told Witherspoon. While that may sound less than ideal, it was certainly more space than she'd been used to, back home. As Parton had previously told Playboy, she was used to sharing a bed with three of her siblings, back home. And, she'd added at the time, "As soon as I'd go to bed, the kids would wet on me."

Ultimately, after high school, Parton moved to Nashville by herself, and her journey towards a more glamorous life began after she got her first big break with her song, "Dumb Blonde." 

Parton cherished the time spent with her uncle Billy

Living in a car with her uncle might not have been glamorous, but if Dolly Parton's comments about Billy Owens are anything to go by, he was a roommate she loved having around. In fact, when it comes to Owens, she's only ever had good things to say. 

Back in 2013, Parton announced that she was formally setting up a tribute section to him at Dollywood's museum. At the opening of the section, she gushed about the role he'd played in her career. She also poked fun at their days of living in the beat-up car together, joking that his car door had been wired shut (via Knoxville News Sentinel). That meant he'd had to climb across from the passenger side, and she'd hop in afterward. "Everybody thought he was ... not a gentleman because he got in before me and I'd have to get in after him," she laughed. 

Suffice it to say, Parton knew the opposite was true. In 2021, Owens passed away. He was 85 at the time of his passing, and as Parton pointed out in a eulogy posted to her website, it was a day she'd long been dreading. "I knew my heart would break when he passed, and it did," she began, before reiterating that he'd been the one to ferry her between gigs and help her find new opportunities. Parton's life might not have been glamorous early on in her career, but there's no doubt that she's always had an abundance of love.