The Transformation Of Dolly Parton From Childhood To Her Late 70s

Dolly Parton is America's irresistible sweetheart. At first glance, we notice her timeless beauty — and, of course, her notorious bosom — but the most striking thing about Parton is her talent, followed closely by her heart. Parton's songwriting skills have gifted us with decades of moving music that crushes our souls and lifts our spirits, all the while making us tap our feet. 

Growing up poor with eleven siblings in a one-room house in rural Tennessee, Parton knew life would bring bigger things her way, but she never looked down upon her upbringing because she always knew she was loved. America fell in love with her, too, when she graced the airwaves of radio and television — and this multi-talent has continued to share inspiration and life lessons through a slew of creative venues. Parton has amassed an impressive number of wins and nominations for Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, Tonys, and a host of other awards

But accolades aside, the success of Parton's illustrious career is demonstrated by the adoration of her fans from nearly every demographic. Perhaps the one thing about which all Americans can agree today is, "We stan Dolly Parton." So, let's take a look at her evolution from ambitious ingenue to beloved icon.

Dolly Parton's rural childhood helped her discover herself

Growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Sevierville, Tennessee, Dolly Parton spent her early years living the simple life – but not without more grandiose dreams. "I just knew that I wanted to be out in a bigger world," Parton recalled to USA Today. "I knew there was more than just the Smokies. I love my people, I love my home, but I just wanted to do more."

Even though she lived in a rural area, Parton still found opportunities to hone her craft. In her earliest days, she described "performing" on her front porch by sticking a tin can on a tobacco stick as a makeshift microphone and singing her heart out. It wasn't long before she was making the rounds for real. "I had an uncle, Bill Owens, that used to take me around to different places to sing," she shared with USA Today. "He had taught me all the chords on the guitar, because he saw early on that I was serious about my singing."

Looking back on her childhood, Parton has shared some advice that she would give her little self as she prepared for what seems to be an inevitable life in the spotlight. "This is what you want and you're going to get it, but you're going to have to work for it and try to love it," she shared with USA Today. "You're going to have a wild ride, but you're going to love it."

Dolly Parton was a small-town girl with big dreams

The day after she graduated from high school in 1964, a bright-eyed Dolly Parton, with a huge smile and mile-high hair to match, left her childhood home in Sevier County, Tenn. and headed to Nashville. It didn't take long for Parton to get settled. 

Later telling CMT News that she met her husband, Carl Thomas Dean, her very first day in Music City, Parton was lucky in the love department and said, "[My husband] never held me back on my dream because he knew I had come here to be a singer and a songwriter." Still together as of this writing, this celeb couple will approach their 55th anniversary in 2021. 

While Parton was bound for superstardom, it didn't come at the expense of domestic bliss. In 2019, she told Us Weekly that the time she's spent apart from her husband has ended up being good for their marriage: "It doesn't hurt to have some separation. I stay gone a lot, so we're excited when we see each other!"

Dolly Parton's marriage is a long-standing one

At the very beginning of her career, Dolly Parton made a lifelong commitment that many others make multiple times, especially throughout a career in the spotlight. Parton married Carl Thomas Dean in 1966 in a small ceremony in Georgia with just Parton's mother in attendance. Parton and Dean have remained married for more than 55 years as the star has continued to expand her career from music to television, films, business ventures, and more. "I like it when people say, 'How did it last so long?' I say, 'It's stay going,'" Parton told ABC News in 2022. "You know, there's a lot to be said about that. So, we're not in each other's face all the time. He's not in the business so we have different interests, but yet we have the things we love to do together."

Dean has served as the inspiration for several of Parton's musical projects, from the cover image of her album "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy" to the crux of her legendary song "Jolene."

Dean has not made many public comments or appearances with his wife throughout their marriage, but he did release an official statement in honor of the couple's 50th anniversary in 2016. "My first thought [when I saw her] was 'I'm gonna marry that girl,'" Dean said in the statement (per ET). "My second thought was, 'Lord she's good lookin.' And that was the day my life began. I wouldn't trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth."

Dolly Parton was discovered by a country icon

At just 21 years old, Dolly Parton released her first album, "Hello, I'm Dolly," in February 1967. It produced two hits with "Something Fishy" and "Dumb Blonde." While she'd toned down the hair volume (a bit) by this time and opted for a more grown-up appearance, the singer-songwriter's face retained its fresh, youthful glow. 

Parton's undeniable talent and beauty grabbed the attention of country crooner Porter Wagoner, who invited her to showcase her music on his television show. In September of that year, Parton performed songs from her debut album on "The Porter Wagoner Show," including "Your Ole Handy Man." Impressing audiences and Wagoner alike, Parton eventually replaced his full-time singer and stayed with the show for seven years.

Dolly Parton's best-known breakup song wasn't written about a lover

Dolly Parton's mega-hit "I Will Always Love You" — which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in June 1974 — was surprisingly written about collaborator Porter Wagoner, in an effort to explain why she wanted to leave his show and strike out on her own.

"I thought, 'How am I gonna make him understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go?'" Parton told the Tennessean. "... So I sat down and I wrote this song." Parton later played the tune for Wagoner, who cried and said, "Well, hell! If you feel that strong about it, just go on." However, he had one condition: that she allow him to produce the song. "He did, and the rest is history," Parton told CMT News

Parton's path to superstardom was now all but a foregone conclusion. Despite her petite figure, this singer-songwriter knows how to command a stage. The above picture of Parton standing alone with an acoustic guitar, sporting a more conservative haircut and stylish but relatively understated top (as compared to the sparkling stage costumes for which she would later become known), makes it easy to see how all eyes would be fixed on her. As she forged her solo path, Parton was tapped for her own variety show on ABC called "Dolly!" in 1976. While it only aired for one season, it wouldn't be Parton's final foray into television.

Dolly Parton isn't afraid to flaunt her assets

This photo shows a 32-year-old Dolly Parton posing in a portrait session for the cover of her 1978 album, "Heartbreaker." She was obviously embracing her more sensuous side by showing a little leg for the camera, but Parton revealed even more of herself in October of the same year when she famously posed for Playboy

"I wasn't naked; all you saw was me in my bunny suit, with my boobs sticking out a little," Parton told US99 radio (via The Boot), later adding, "That was a good article they ran in there, and it was just a fun thing to do. That was just another way I was trying to market myself, at that time, to kinda get in the mainstream and take it right to the edge, but not do the whole dirty deal." 

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Parton's appearance in Playboy is that she hoped to do it again to mark her 75th birthday in January 2021. When Entertainment Weekly asked if she wanted to wear the outfit from her first Playboy shoot, she replied, "Maybe! I could probably use it. Boobs are still the same!"

The phrase '9 to 5' takes on a new meaning

When you're nominated for a Golden Globe for your first acting role, you know you're doing something right. Dolly Parton kicked off a movie career with her usual gusto in the 1980 film "9 to 5." Just two years after winning her first Grammy Award for "Here You Come Again," Parton won two more Grammys for 9 to 5's title song, which she wrote and performed. 

Joining actresses Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in portraying women falling victim to a sexist corporate culture and boss, Parton brought her unique brand of sassy and sexy to the silver screen with a platinum shag and, of course, tight costumes, plus a southern drawl that could melt anyone in its wake. The female-empowerment plot line delighted moviegoers, making "9 to 5" an instant classic. The movie's themes withstood the test of time so much that it was adapted into a stage musical in 2008, for which Parton received a Tony nomination for best original score. 

There were also plans in the works for a movie remake with the original cast, but Parton told Entertainment Tonight in 2019, "We never could get the script where it was enough different than the first one, and that one turned out so good."

Dolly Parton was the best madam in Texas

1982 brought Dolly Parton another box-office smash with "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which was adapted for film from the 1978 Broadway musical of the same title. The movie earned her another Golden Globe nomination in 1983, this time for her role as a feisty madam. That year also brought Parton a working relationship that would foster a creative collaboration and a deeply personal connection for decades to come when she teamed up with Kenny Rogers on "Islands in the Stream." A duet written by the Bee Gees, Billboard notes that it skyrocketed to No. 1 on its Top 100, Country, and Adult Contemporary charts! 

Basically, Parton was everywhere in the early '80s with puffy curls and bangs — and it was about this time when rhinestones, sequins, and fringe started to adorn nearly everything in her stage wardrobe. Speaking of rhinestones, in 1984, Dolly starred with Sylvester Stallone in a film called "Rhinestone," which led to some personal development on the singer-actress' part.

Dolly Parton means business

Dolly Parton is certainly a character and she loves to be goofy, but there's no doubt this multi-hyphenate means business. Here she is pictured above in 1985 in a power suit at Century Plaza Towers in Los Angeles, showing off some serious weight loss. To what, or whom, did Parton credit her newfound fitness, you ask? Her friendship with Sylvester Stallone. Speaking with Marie Claire, Parton revealed that Stallone helped her work out a more nutritious diet and get into an exercise regimen. 

But while she's wearing a conservative white two-piece suit above, Parton couldn't be understated about everything. The curls in that long spiral perm (or wig, as she is known for wearing during appearances and performances) bring her crown closer to God. As Parton told Elle, "I don't always wear [wigs] in my daily life, but I always still pouf up my hair. I still like to have that flashy hair. When I'm around home, I wear my little scrunchies ... Wigs are just so handy. I'm so busy, and I have so many choices. I never have a bad hair day, and that's a good thing."

Dolly Parton had an idea, and Dollywood was born

What does an impish, energetic, gorgeous, creative country girl do once she's topped the music charts and established a successful acting career? Well, she opens a theme park, of course! Duh. As a 40-year-old Dolly Parton told People in 1986, "A few years back, when I first started seeing the Hollywood sign, I kept thinking how cute it would be if I could change the H to a D — and see how long it would take anybody to notice. It just popped into my mind that it would be a good name for a park." 

She decided to build one near her childhood home in Tennessee, eventually turning Silver Dollar City, an existing 400-acre history-themed park, into what's now known as Dollywood. Parton opted for some more casual yet always fashionable clothes during this era, but whether her hair was pulled back or teased out, she puts on her full makeup every time she leaves the house ... even if she's digging with a shovel during the park's construction. If that isn't the mark of a true Southern woman, we don't know what is. Of her already iconic blonde hair and red lipstick look, Parton quipped in an interview at the time, "I don't feel cheap, but I don't mind looking cheap."

A year after the park opened in 1986, Parton went back to her television roots on ABC with a variety show called "Dolly" (this time with no exclamation mark).

Dolly Parton was sparkle-studded at a star-studded event

Always one to stand out in a crowd, Dolly Parton is shown above walking the red carpet with costars Julia Roberts and Sally Field at the "Steel Magnolias" premiere in New York City. The film had an all-star ensemble cast and was a major hit, grossing almost $100 million in box-office revenue. 

As the old saying goes, you can take the girl out of the rhinestones, but not when that girl is Dolly Parton. She just can't quit that sparkle. In 1989, the 43-year-old still wore her long, bouncy hair with tons of body, but the curls were looser. Perhaps the curl-to-rhinestone ratio is inversely proportional if you have a Tennessee theme park named after you. What? There's no science in acting or country music, you say? Au contraire! As B&B Music Lessons puts it, "Science can explain music, but only intellect and emotion can create it." And a sparkling Dolly Parton is certainly a mood!

Precious good times with a dear friend

The '80s passed, and Dolly Parton's superfluously-teased hair went along with them — but her friendship and working relationship with Kenny Rogers continued to grow. You can see by the way she is looking at him during this 1990 performance in Minneapolis that she admires him and feels at ease sharing the stage. 

When Rogers passed away in March 2020, Parton tweeted a heartfelt tribute about their strong bond and "wonderful times" together. "I loved Kenny with all my heart, and my heart's broken, and a big ole chunk of it has gone with him today," Parton told fans in a recorded video. "And I think that I can speak for all his family, his friends, and fans, when I say that I will always love you." You can't make new old friends, so this was certainly a major loss in her life.

Older, wiser, and even more fabulous

An air of sophistication surrounds a 54-year-old Dolly Parton as she smiles from a limo in midtown Manhattan (pictured, above). This candid photo from 2000 shows her hair cropped to a chin-length shag that flatters her face and makes her look years younger. Perhaps this is the first glimpse of some of the cosmetic work she's had done. Parton was and has remained incredibly well-preserved, and there's nothing wrong with a little nip and tuck. In fact, she's quite open about having had plastic surgery

In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Parton said, "If something is bagging, sagging or dragging, I'll tuck it, suck it or pluck it." She wouldn't be contemplating a Playboy shoot at 75 years old if she weren't confident everything had held up, or been lifted, just fine!

Dolly Parton received Kennedy Center Honors

In 2006, at age 60, Dolly Parton was recognized with Kennedy Center Honors. Pictured above at the White House with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, along with her fellow honorees, Parton proved she can bring country-girl spirit to any event ... even a formal occasion. At the gala to celebrate the artists being honored — Smokey Robinson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Zubin Mehtahe, and herself — she sported a floor-length, form-fitting white gown with fringe, rhinestones, and a low-cut décolletage. Dolly still loves to flaunt what God, and maybe some tucks, gave her (and when have boobs ever not been festive?).

With some of the next generation of country singers performing Parton's biggest hits — including then-newbie Carrie Underwood pairing up with Kenny Rogers for a rendition of "Islands in the Stream," per CMT News — Parton's longtime producer, Steve Buckingham explained why this particular honor made perfect sense on Parton's website. Noting her "huge" impact worldwide not only due to "her body of work as a singer and songwriter and an actress but [also] her philanthropic work," he added of Parton's singular talent, "I always say, the one thing you never hear when you're anywhere with her is, 'I wonder if that's Dolly Parton?' because there's no doubt."

Better days still lie ahead for Dolly Parton

The above photo from Dolly Parton's 2011 "Better Day" world tour shows a style she's maintained for several years. The signature sparkle remained — in her clothes and in her eyes — but the singer-songwriter's hair had a new look with long layers that are teased on top (though not as crazily as during the '80s). But while this was Parton's go-to look for live performances, she kept her hair neatly coiffed and sleek for other public appearances. 

"Better Day" was Parton's 43rd (!!) solo album (via The Boot). But at age 65, she seemed to have the same amount of energy as when she was just getting started nearly five decades earlier. Here's to vitality and longevity!

Dolly Parton's dress of many colors

Dolly Parton is shown here on stage at a benefit in Nashville for The Opry Trust Fund, performing songs from her 2016 "Pure & Simple" album, which is a compilation of love songs exploring the "many colors of love." Perhaps her dress of rainbow sequins is symbolic. After all, multiple colors have been a running theme in Parton's life and work. 

"A Coat of Many Colors," for example, was a 2015 TV movie based on Parton's childhood — she also wrote a song (which happens to be her favorite) and a children's book with the same title. Parton's website explains the name: "When Dolly's mother took a box of rags that someone had given her and sewed them into a patchwork coat of love for her daughter, she didn't know she was setting her on a path that would become one of the most beautifully woven tapestries in the history of American music." Rainbow sequins, then, seem to fit both the theme of Parton's life and work, as well as her colorful personality!

Country royalty is a small but beloved crew

How many women can still rock a body-hugging dress at age 73? Dolly Parton's youthful energy radiates when she smiles, and that impish grin still makes fans melt. 

As undeniably beautiful as Carrie Underwood (who's nearly four decades Parton's junior) is, there is something extra powerful in the energy of country matriarchs Parton and Reba McEntire at the 2019 CMA Awards. Alongside Underwood, both Parton and McEntire exude "I no longer really care about any of this mess" vibes, which gives them an effortlessly confident and sexy presence in the above photo. This iconic trio later headlined the evening's "Women of Country Performance." The nearly nine-minute medley, which opened the show, featured the biggest female stars of the genre (past and present, thank you very much) and some of country music's major hits, including Parton's "Those Memories of You."

Parton became music and Hollywood royalty decades ago, but the love from her fans has never faded. In fact, she is somehow even more beloved today, while still writing and releasing new music with no signs of stopping.

Dolly Parton's bedtime stories for children during the 2020 pandemic

Dolly Parton looked cozy and warm reading while bedtime stories to kids during the COVID-19 lockdown (pictured, left) as part of her Goodnight with Dolly series. The singer-songwriter (who naturally also performed music virtually for charity while in quarantine, as seen on the right) has donated more than 100 million books to homes, libraries, and schools to help increase childhood literacy through her Imagination LibraryThis started as a local program in Tennessee in 1995 and kept growing until millions of free books were being sent around the world

While Parton even refers to herself as "The Book Lady," her ongoing dedication to the betterment of the world has been admirable and steadfast in many areas. In April 2020, for example, the singer-actress announced on Twitter that she'd donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University for coronavirus vaccine research. Amid the pain, fear, and confusion in the world during the 2020 pandemic, a 74-year-old Parton released a song that could be an anthem for anyone going through loss or trauma, entitled "When Life is Good Again." As long as Dolly Parton is in our lives, life is good.

Dolly Parton is a certified Rockstar

Dolly Parton may be a country music legend, but she's also established herself as a bonafide rock star. In 2022, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – despite initially turning down the offer. "It was always my belief that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was for the people in rock music, and I have found out lately that it's not necessarily that," Parton told NPR after she retroactively accepted the invitation. "But if they can't go there to be recognized, where do they go? So I just felt like I would be taking away from someone that maybe deserved it, certainly more than me, because I never considered myself a rock artist. But obviously, there's more to it than that."

Following her induction, Parton prepared and released a rock and roll album of her own, "Rockstar," as her way of proving her place amongst the greats. The album, which featured legends of the genre from Stevie Nicks and Debbie Harry to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, became Parton's highest charting album on the Billboard 200 chart. "I really had to be rock 'n' roll," Parton shared in an ABC special with Robin Roberts in 2023. "I did not wanna do this country. I did not wanna do this rock half-a**. I thought, 'If I am going to do a rock album, I'm gonna have to really, really, really work at it.'"

Dolly channeled her inner Dallas Cowboys cheerleader

As she entered her "Rockstar" era, Dolly Parton proved to the masses that she was still capable of changing her look while still staying true to her own style. In November 2023, she performed at halftime of the Washington Commanders vs. Dallas Cowboys NFL game on Thanksgiving. But it wasn't just her performance that awed the crowd (and millions of viewers) – Dolly was dressed in the iconic Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader uniform, complete with studded white short shorts and bright blue crop top. At 77 years old, Parton was yet again redefining beauty standards at any age. "It was completely her idea," her manager Danny Nozell told Billboard of the performance ensemble. "She waited until right before she went to stage and came out of the dressing room to show us all. When she came out, myself, the security and my staff fainted. I couldn't tell the difference between Dolly and the cheerleaders. That is the genius of Dolly, and people are still talking about it."

While some people criticized Parton for her daring look, many fans were quick to defend the star – including her sister, Stella. "To those of you being so critical of a 77 year old kicking up her heels, I say f*** yourself," she posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. "Shame on you not her."

At almost 78, she continues to expand her business acumen

Dolly Parton has shown no signs of slowing down in her career as she moves towards her eighth decade – especially when it comes to her business affairs. In late 2023, she announced a number of new projects that continues to expand her reach across sectors and states alike. In December, her company Dollywood (which runs a Tennessee-based theme park resort) announced the development of a new hotel and retail property in downtown Nashville. "Since the pandemic, commercial real estate is becoming an opportunity," Parton remarked in a statement (per Billboard). "I strongly believe in the future of Nashville and feel this is a great investment."

Parton has also continued to advance her Imagination Library initiative, a children's literacy program which has impacted more 250 million children throughout the United States and countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland since 1995. "...The seeds of...dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world," Parton said in a statement on the initiative's website.

In 2023, Parton announced that the program would expand north and into Maine. "I'm thrilled that we'll be working with [the Maine] state library to ensure that every young child in Maine has access to books early in life," Parton said in a video statement about the endeavor (per WGME13). "Happy reading Maine. And remember, that I will always love you."