Inside Dolly Parton's Marriage

A bona fide country legend, Dolly Parton has released 65 albums over the course of her illustrious career and racked up a lot of awards along the way, including the 1978 ACM Entertainer of the Year. As of this writing, she has been up for 50 Grammys, making her the second-most nominated woman in history. She's also a dedicated philanthropist, giving regularly to causes like childhood literacy and COVID-19 vaccine development through her Dollywood Foundation. Humble and driven with a heart of gold, it's no wonder Parton's managed to accumulate so many fans over the years.

But even some of her most devoted fans are surprised to find that the legendary singer is married. Parton's husband, Carl Dean, prefers a private life. Parton has always been cool with this wish... which has led many folks to believe that Dean is just a made-up figure meant to help Parton's image. That theory, however, is complete hogwash. Dean is very real, and he and Parton have been married since 1966. Let's take a closer look at their relationship, from its straight out of a movie meet-cute to their secrets for making it last.

Read on to learn more about the elusive man behind the icon.

Dolly Parton met Carl Dean at a laundromat

After Dolly Parton graduated from high school in 1964, she did not wait too long before she made her way to Nashville. Frankly, she didn't wait at all. As she recounted in Interview, she left for Music City the day after she was officially done with school. One of her first stops in town happened to be a local laundromat, where she walked out with clean clothes and a handsome new boyfriend named Carl Dean. Parton told the publication she was "looking for anything but love" at that time, quipping, "I had just left two boyfriends back home and I wasn't looking to get involved because I had gone to Nashville to really get started in the business."

Whether she planned on finding love that quickly or not, it seems once she bumped into Dean Parton never really had a chance. In a rare statement, Dean told ET, "My first thought was 'I'm gonna marry that girl.' My second thought was 'Lord she's good lookin.' And that was the day my life began." Reflecting on their fortuitous meeting, Parton wrote on her website, "I was surprised and delighted that while he talked to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me). He seemed to be genuinely interested in finding out who I was and what I was about."

They went against Dolly Parton's label's wishes

On May 30, 1966, Dolly Parton and Carl Dean tied the knot. The ceremony wasn't the over-the-top sort of celebration you'd expect from the famously glitzy and glamorous Parton, but a quiet affair with just a couple of witnesses in attendance. The simple ceremony wasn't a matter of taste, but rather an effort to keep their marriage a secret.  Parton's label didn't want her to get hitched because they worried it would negatively impact her image. Parton explained to CMT, "Everyone at my label — Monument Records and Fred Foster — had invested money in me and my budding career, so they asked me if I'd wait a year to get married. And I didn't want to not do what I was supposed to do."

And with that, Dean, Parton, and Parton's mother headed to Georgia for an under-the-radar wedding. The bride told CMT that on their big day, she had "a little white dress and a little bouquet and a little Bible" and headed to a Baptist church to make it official. While the couple doesn't regret the timing of their marriage, Parton does feel a little regret about the way it all went down, telling People, "I never felt like I had the wedding that we really wanted."

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean 'dreamed' about parenthood

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean hoped to become parents, but they never had children. In an interview with The Guardian, the singer mused, "My husband and I, when we first got married, we thought about if we had kids, what would they look like?... we talked about it, and we dreamed it, but it wasn't meant to be." That "meant to be" is likely referring to the partial hysterectomy that Parton had in 1984, which led her doctors to tell her she'd never be able to carry a child.

In the end, it seems Parton and Dean have made peace with the decision to not have biological children or to adopt. She told Closer Weekly, "God has a plan for everything and I think it probably was his plan for me not to have kids, so that everybody's kids could be mine." In an interview with The Guardian, she noted that she "would have been a great mother" but she believes her career would've looked quite a bit different. "I would probably have given up everything else," she shared. "Because I would've felt guilty about that, if I'd have left them [to work, to tour]. Everything would have changed. I probably wouldn't have been a star."

There have been rumors of infidelity

As with any long-standing Hollywood relationship, rumors of infidelity have circled Dolly Parton and Carl Dean for years. That said, it seems at least a few of those rumors aren't totally out of left field. In a Ladies' Home Journal interview featured in "Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton," the country megastar revealed that she once had "an affair of the heart." She didn't say who the affair was with (per the Daily Mail, the rumor mill believes it was her band leader Gregg Perry), but did say that it "just about killed [her]." 

Parton isn't the only one in the marriage to have flirted with infidelity. At least, not if her account of the inspiration behind her famous song "Jolene" is to be taken seriously. The Independent wrote that after singing the song at Glastonbury in 2014, Parton explained to the crowd, "That song was loosely based on a little bit of truth. I wrote that years ago when my husband... was spending a little more time with Jolene than I thought he should be." If the tittle-tattle is to be believed, "Jolene" was supposedly inspired by a bank teller with whom Dean apparently had a flirtatious dynamic.

Dolly Parton says she's in an 'open' marriage

Fueling those infidelity rumors is Dolly Parton's admission that she and Carl Dean are in something of an "open" marriage. In a chat with the Daily Mail, the country star offered up details about their relatively less traditional arrangement. "Men are my weakness," she shared. "Short, fat, bald, or skinny— I've had crushes on some very unusual men but Carl knows I'll always come home and I'm not having sex with these people — I'm just flirtin' and having fun." And as far she's concerned, there's no shame in it. As Parton said in a Ladies' Home Journal interview featured in "Dolly On Dolly," "Of course I've been tempted. I'm married — I'm not dead." 

But before you characterize them as a polyamorous couple, know that physical relationships with others are off the table for the pair. As noted in "Dolly On Dolly" (via Mirror), Parton said the "openness" only extends so far. "Yes, it's an open relationship, but not sexually and I would kill him if I thought he was doing that," she explained. "He would shoot me too. At the end of the day we love each other madly." So it seems that while they have a little more give in their partnership than many couples, they still wouldn't be okay with either partner having an extramarital dalliance. Which means maybe those infidelity rumors are just rumors after all.

They are complete opposites...

Dolly Parton may be perfectly at home performing on a stage in front of millions of people, but for her husband Carl Dean, that scenario is a perfect nightmare. And it's not for want of trying. Per The Boot, she once told an audience about a time early on in her career where she and Dean attended a red carpet industry event that prompted a bit of a gear shift. Her introverted husband hated the whole affair so much that as soon as the night was over, Dean turned to her and said, "Dolly, I want you to have everything you want, and I'm happy for you, but don't you ever ask me to go to another one of them dang things again!"

While some celebrities might struggle with being with someone who can't get away from the public eye fast enough, Parton has made it work. Chatting with ET about how she's "always respected" Dean's aversion to fame, she said he's always been cool with her being, you know, an extremely famous celebrity. She explained, "He said, 'I didn't choose this world, I chose you, and you chose that world. But we can keep our lives separate and together.' And we do and we have." 

... but Carl Dean is incredibly supportive

Just because Carl Dean doesn't enjoy the spotlight that doesn't mean he isn't incredibly supportive of his wife's life in it. Long before they met, she had stars in her eyes, and as The Boot noted, he was on board with her career dreams from the start. And clearly, he's remained very much in her corner ever since. As Parton shared on "Good Morning Britain," "[Dean] is proud of me, and he loves that I love what I do."

On a similar note, she revealed to Parade that while her husband "[isn't] in show business" he's "not resentful of any of that." She continued, "He loves to hear about the things I do." And it's not a one-way street; Parton "loves to hear about the things [Dean] does" as well, even if his day-to-day, as an asphalt contractor and business owner, isn't quite as glamorous as her own. The couple's unconditional support for each other and interest in each other's lives is likely a huge factor in the strength and endurance of their relationship.

They love a casual date night

According to Celebrity Net Worth, Dolly Parton is worth $650 million. Bearing that in mind, it feels safe to assume she and Carl Dean could easily afford to eat at high-end restaurants every night of the week. However, they've always preferred more understated outings. As Parton told People, when they first started dating, one of their go-to spots was a fast food classic. "When I met my husband, he wanted to take me out to dinner," she recalled. "He pulled up to the drive-in window and got our food at McDonald's." These days, their date nights feature fewer drive-thru windows but are still pretty chill all things considered. According to the outlet, the two enjoy "low-key dinners at their favorite local restaurants."

And if they're not up for eating at an establishment? The "Islands In the Stream" singer will take to the kitchen. She told People that she will prep and pack up a meal for the two to enjoy at "some riverbank somewhere with our little camper" or "some little Days Inn motel." And it sounds like she wouldn't have it any other way. As she shared with ET, "We have very similar tastes... we love to travel around our little RV, and we don't like parties and all that stuff." Not a bad way to get a break from the limelight. 

They show love with 'thoughtful' gestures

Low-key doesn't mean low-romance. Both Dolly Parton and Carl Dean prioritize doing romantic things for each other on a regular basis. Parton once revealed to People that her husband has a sweet seasonal ritual: "We still have our little times, like in the springtime when the first yellow daffodils come out. Even if there's still some snow around it, my husband always brings me a bouquet. And he'll usually write me a little poem. Which to me, that's priceless." The seasons may change, but his shows of affection don't go into hibernation. Parton told the Mirror that Dean is an "incredibly thoughtful" person who does little but meaningful things like "making [her] coffee in the morning."

The gestures aren't a one-way street, either. On Dean's birthday in 2021, Parton recreated her iconic Playboy cover — bunny ears and all — as a birthday gift for her man who "loved the original cover." In a video she posted to Twitter, she explained that the sentimental gift was sure to "make [Dean] happy." And although we weren't there for the big reveal, judging by Parton's enthusiasm we can only assume he was as touched as she imagined he'd be.

Carl Dean inspired one of Dolly Parton's albums

Much of Dolly Parton's music is personal, influenced by real events or real people in her orbit. So it's not incredibly surprising that she has an entire album inspired by her relationship with Carl Dean. Chatting with Rolling Stone about the record in 2016, she said, "I was just trying to think about all the different colors of love through the years. I thought 'I'm just going to write about mine and Carl's relationship. It's just a pure and simple relationship." And with that, the album was called "Pure & Simple," and the songs "Forever Love," "So Forever Mine You'll Be," and "Tomorrow is Forever," were written for her longtime partner.

Despite the sweetness of this gesture, Dean reportedly doesn't love Parton's specific brand of music. On "Good Morning Britain," Parton said her husband "isn't necessarily one of my biggest fans." Continuing, "It's a touchy subject. ... He likes hard rock, he likes Led Zeppelin and bluegrass music. My music's somewhere in between. So, he doesn't dislike it, but he doesn't go out of his way to play my records, let's put it that way." The country star seems to take their differing tastes in stride, commenting that his support —which he gives freely — is more important to her than the idea that he loves each and every last one of her records.

Dolly Parton celebrated her 50th anniversary in a big way

In 2016, Dolly Parton and Carl Dean hit a huge milestone in their relationship — one that few couples, especially those in Hollywood, manage to reach. To celebrate 50 years of marriage, they had a second wedding, renewing the vows they'd made a half-century before. "It was my idea to renew the wedding vows — he is too shy and doesn't like the commotion," Parton told the Mirror ahead of the event. "But he will be glad to do it — if I tell him to ... he seemed a little excited when I mentioned it. He would have never brought up the idea himself."

The couple held their vow renewal in the chapel at their Nashville home, and this time around? She didn't wear another little white dress. "I got all dressed up in the most beautiful gown you've ever seen and dressed that handsome husband of mine up," she recounted in Rolling Stone. While she certainly upped the wardrobe's ante, the day itself was small and breezy. "We didn't plan anything big at all because we didn't want any kind of strain, any kind of tension, any kind of commotion, so we planned it cleverly and carefully," she said. The happy couple invited only their closest friends and family to share in the love. 

Their two secrets to a long marriage

So what's the secret to staying married for a long time? According to Dolly Parton, there are two. When the Knoxville News Sentinel asked the songstress for her relationship tips she joked, "Well, I stay gone," before explaining more seriously that time apart helps their relationship "stay new." She reiterated her belief that absence makes the heart grow fonder in an interview with ET, remarking, "And there's a lot of truth in that — the fact that we're not in each other's faces all the time."

But prioritizing time apart isn't the only factor in the couple's happy marriage formula. They're also friends first. In the aforementioned Knoxville News Sentinel interview, Parton said, "We're good friends. We love and respect each other. We're friends and we're married. ... I think that's the key to most of it because we like each other a lot." It wasn't the only time she's discussed the fact that she and Carl Dean are friends before lovers. Speaking with Parade, Parton shared, "We enjoy each other's company. We get along good. He's got a great sense of humor. We've just been best buddies and best friends and, evidently, it's working!" It all sounds like pretty good advice to us.

Dolly Parton never fights with her husband

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean decided that they will never trade verbal blows and... that decision sure seems to have stuck.  As the songstress once told W, the couple simply "don't argue." And it's not because they never do anything to get on each other's nerves, but because they've made a conscious decision to refrain from fighting. In an interview with fellow country music singer Gabby Barrett for Amazon Music, Parton explained, "My husband and I have never fought, we've never bickered back and forth, cause I never wanted one of us to say bad things that we'd have to remember. We get a little pissy now and then, but we'll just kind of walk off or go do something else, kinda let that die down."

That level of self-control, to not speak negatively to your partner when they've done something frustrating, is impressive, to say the least. But Parton maintains the amount of time they spend apart helps. She told Barrett, "We're not like in each other's faces all the time. ... There's a lot to be said about having some sensible separation because you can't be with somebody 24/7, 365 and not want to smack their face now and then."

Dolly Parton and Carl Dean are as close as ever

It was love at first sight for Dolly Parton and Carl Dean, and that love hasn't faded a bit over the years — if anything, it's only continued to blossom. During an appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in 2020, Parton told the late-night host about their inimitable connection. "I'll often be thinking about something that's worrying me or grieving me, and I'll pray about something kind of waiting for an answer, and he'll sometimes just up and just say something, and it's just like, 'Well I didn't say anything to you about that,'" she said. "I don't know if he just senses how I'm feeling, but I have always said God speaks to me through him." 

In a 2016 chat with CBN News, the songstress called the relationship "a God-send." She continued, "I think my husband and my relationship was just really a God-send. God knew I was going to need somebody like him if I was going to be doing all this crazy stuff. But He knew he (Carl) was going to need somebody like me because Carl is pretty much a loner and he really doesn't want to be with anybody but me."

Aw. We beg your Parton, but we can't help but swoon over the love these two share. Here's to many more years of romance, togetherness, and joy.