During Dolly Parton’s more than five-decade-long career, the star’s heartfelt country songs, warm public persona and showstopping sense of style have won her a whole legion of fans from around the world. And most of those admirers know that Parton is also a woman of faith who hasn’t been shy about professing her belief in God. So when the legendary musician made an appearance on Larry King Now, she was similarly outspoken – not least when it comes to how she really feels about same-sex relationships.
Christianity has been a big part of Parton’s life since childhood, in fact, as the future star initially chose to show off her talents as a young singer at church. And even after the country icon achieved international fame, she held fast to her religious convictions. “A belief in God is essential,” Parton explained to Country Woman magazine in 2014. “You have to believe in something bigger than yourself. We grew up believing that through God all things are possible.”
In a 2016 interview with CBN News, Parton also admitted, “People say, ‘Well, I am surprised that you talk about your faith,’ and I say, “Why not? That’s who I am. That’s what keeps me going.’” It’s perhaps no surprise that she grew up to be devout, though, as her maternal grandfather, Jake Owens, was a local Pentecostal preacher.
Yet Parton herself came from humble beginnings, having been born into poverty in Tennessee in 1946. The star has since explained that her parents couldn’t even afford to pay the doctor who had helped bring her into the world. Instead, her father was forced to give the medical professional cornmeal in lieu of cash.
And even after the family upped sticks to Locust Ridge, life was still hardscrabble. In fact, the young Parton grew up in an unadorned one-room cabin along with her mother, father and 11 siblings. Despite this tough existence, though, Parton’s mom, Avie Lee, still managed to take time out to treat her large brood to folk stories and songs.
And, of course, the Parton children were raised as Pentecostal Christians in the Church of God. The clan were actually frequent visitors to the place of worship at which their grandfather preached. It was also there that Parton began to show a flair for playing guitar and singing from the tender age of just six.
Yes, the future icon started her career young, cutting her teeth on Tennessee TV and radio shows before she was even a teenager. A life as a recording artist seemed to beckon, too, when Parton cut her debut single, “Puppy Love,” in 1959 – although the track didn’t exactly set the charts alight.
Then Parton earned a prestigious slot at the Grand Ole Opry, where she set eyes on Johnny Cash for the first time. And by the star’s account, Cash made quite an impression on her. In a 2012 interview with Nightline, Parton revealed, “I was sitting in the audience, and that’s when I first knew about sex appeal – someone striking and [who] made me feel something inside.”
Cash ended up having an even bigger impact upon Parton, though. You see, the veteran musician apparently gave the young hopeful a valuable piece of advice by encouraging her to take her career in the direction she wanted. And Cash’s words were to stand Parton in good stead when her new label, Monument Records, wanted her to sing pop – not country.
Despite the singer’s own wishes, you see, Monument subsequently pushed Parton into a pop career that had little success. The label relented, though, when it noticed its charge’s talent for writing a hit country song. Along with her uncle Bill Owens, Parton had penned the track “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” for up-and-comer Bill Phillips, and the tune had ultimately risen into the top ten of the Billboard country chart.
Then, after releasing her debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly, the 21-year-old Parton was offered a spot on country music program The Porter Wagoner Show. But while the fledgling star went on to accept the invite, her stint on the series initially looked as though it was going to be a short one. You see, Parton had taken the spot of popular fellow performer Norma Jean, and the audience initially failed to accept her as a consequence.
Eventually, though, the viewers warmed to Parton. And she and Wagoner also proved to be a great pairing, with the two stars going on to release a string of hit duets in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet this success unfortunately didn’t translate to Parton’s solo career – at least, not to begin with.
Then, after being persuaded by her co-star to release a rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues,” Parton’s fortunes changed. The record got to number three, in fact, and was to be the first of several solo smashes. And in the years that followed, Parton recorded what would prove to be two of her most enduring songs: “Coat of Many Colors” and “Jolene.”
Buoyed by her success, Parton subsequently decided to make the break from her professional partner and go it alone. This bittersweet moment was commemorated in the musician’s song “I Will Always Love You,” which paid tribute to Wagoner and their friendship. Famously, the track also became an international megahit in the ’90s when re-recorded by Whitney Houston.
Yet another famous artist could have actually taken on “I Will Always Love You.” None other than Elvis Presley had expressed an interest in recording his own version of the track, and to begin with Parton was on board. Just one thing stood in the way of the country star handing over the song to the King: he would have to take half of the publishing rights. Owing to that caveat, then, Parton cannily refused the request.
But the musician wasn’t averse to returning to TV, as she did just that with her own series Dolly!, which aired from 1976 to 1977. And the format – which featured Parton singing her own songs alongside a slew of special guests – turned out to be a hit, too. Yet even though audiences seemed to love Dolly!, Parton didn’t. “It was really bad for me, that TV show,” she later told biographer Alanna Nash.
Parton added of the series, “It was worse for me than good, because the people who didn’t know me who liked the show thought that’s how I was… And the people who did know me thought I was crazy. They knew that wasn’t me. Including me. I didn’t know that woman on TV!” So the star ultimately bowed out of doing the show after just one season.
By now, though, Parton was becoming such a household name that she arguably didn’t need Dolly! to boost her appeal. And following a string of number-one country singles, she seemed primed for crossover success. This duly came in 1977, when Parton’s LP Here You Come Again went platinum. The record also ended up scooping her a Grammy.
Parton conquered Hollywood, too, when she headlined 1980 revenge comedy 9 to 5 alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Famously, the musician also wrote and sang the film’s title track, which remains one of her most beloved tunes and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song to boot.
And the smash hits kept on coming after that, with Parton landing an impressive 12 singles in the top ten of the U.S. country chart from 1981 to 1985. The Kenny Rogers collaboration Islands in the Stream also found mainstream success, with the track reaching the summit of the U.S pop chart upon its release in 1983.
It’s worth noting, though, that Parton hasn’t only received acclaim for her music. The country legend’s performance in 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, for example, gave her a coveted Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. The accolade was Parton’s second in the category, following her star turn as scheming secretary Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5.
In the ’90s, however, a new breed of country stars began to emerge and take over the charts, pushing Parton and her contemporaries into the background. But even though the musician didn’t manage to keep a run of smashes going during that decade, she remained a living icon. And in 1996 a rather unusual tribute was paid to Parton. That year, you see, a sheep that had been cloned from an ovine mammary gland cell was named after her – in a sly nod to her famous bust.
Yet that’s one bust that has remained resolutely covered up. In fact, Parton received a number of requests to appear naked in Playboy – but she has refused every time. And while she did agree to appear on the cover of the men’s magazine in 1978, she did so while wearing a comparatively covered-up – if still fairly skimpy – Playboy bunny outfit.
Parton hasn’t been reluctant, however, when it comes to talking about the surgical procedures that she’s embarked upon in order to maintain her enviable figure. In fact, she has celebrated the work she has had done, once famously remarking, “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked.”
But despite the pro-woman bent of hits such as 9 to 5 – as well as her own status as a highly accomplished trailblazer – Parton seemingly has no truck with feminism. “I think that I just live my femininity,” she told Sky News in February 2019. “I mean, people say, ‘Are you a feminist?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know that that means.’ I’m proud to be a woman, proud to be a woman in business [and] proud enough of what I do.”
In the same interview, Parton also spoke somewhat cautiously about #MeToo, claiming that in her opinion the movement is a “work in progress, as life itself is – especially women in the workplace.” Even before sexual harassment became a hot topic, however, the musician had her own way of making sure that she wasn’t disrespected by her male peers.
“Because I’m a country girl, that doesn’t mean I’m a stupid girl,” Parton told The Sun in February 2019. “If somebody got too aggressive, I would either just squeal or holler or say, ‘Hey, I think you’ve got the wrong girl here. I’m not willing to sleep with anybody to try to get ahead in the business.’”
The star has also expressed some skepticism about younger stars coming out as pansexual or gender-fluid – even calling out her goddaughter Miley Cyrus in the process. When speaking on a February 2019 edition of the The Dan Wootton Interview podcast, she explained, “For me, I’m still an old timer. Sometimes I think it’s just become kind of fashionable to speak out like that… Miley, she does a lot of stuff for effect.”
Yet, of course, Parton’s glamorous style and sassy attitude have made her something of a gay icon over the years. And when it comes to gay rights, she’s very happily been vocal. In fact, as far back as 1991, she gave a nod to the LGBT community in her song “Family” – albeit through lyrics that may seem a little dated today.
In 1994 Parton also lent her track “You Gotta Be My Baby” to the compilation album Red Hot + Country – proceeds from which went towards AIDS research and awareness. Billy Ray Cyrus and Johnny Cash similarly donated songs to the record, with Cash contributing his version of ’70s Bob Dylan cut “Forever Young.”
It’s true, too, that the star once took part in a drag competition to find the best Parton lookalike – although she met with little success. “I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close,” she wryly recalled in a 2009 interview with Good Morning America. And after Parton was approached to write a track for 2005 transgender dramedy Transamerica, she more than delivered with “Travelin’ Thru,” which won her yet another Academy Award nomination.
Plus, Parton has been characteristically candid when it comes to the subject of same-sex relationships. Speaking on Australian TV show News Breakfast in 2017, she quipped of gay marriage, “Why can’t they be as miserable as us heterosexuals in their marriages? Hey, I think love is love, and we have no control over that.”
And the country icon took a similar tack during a 2016 episode of Larry King Now. When the host asked her, “Didn’t you recently throw support to the LGBT community?” Parton replied, “Oh, I’m always encouraging [them]. They’ve made me the poster child, I think, because I’m so outspoken – just being accepting of people in general.”
The star continued, “I do not believe that we should criticize and judge other people. I believe we should be accepting and loving.” And Parton further justified her stance by saying, “We are all God’s children. We are who we are, and we should be allowed to be who we are.”
Parton conceded, though, that her opinions aren’t always shared by religious groups. When King asked, “Do any of the faith-based communities who believe the other way take umbrage with you?” Parton swiftly replied, “Oh absolutely. Oh yes, I get it all the time.”
The musician added, “Well, if you’re the fine Christian that you think you are, why are you judging people? That’s God’s job. We’re not God; we’re not judges. We’re supposed to love one another, [and] we’re supposed not to judge. We’re not supposed to take vengeance on other people – that’s God’s job.”
Parton went on, “I got too much on my own to do to try and do God’s work, too.” And in case those judgmental folks hadn’t quite understood, the singer further spelled her views out, saying, “If you’re gay, you’re gay. If you’re straight, you’re straight. And you should be allowed to be how you are and who you are.”
Parton herself has been married to husband Carl Dean since 1966 – a longevity that is incredible by Hollywood standards. Dean prefers to keep a low profile, though, meaning he and his superstar wife are rarely pictured together. Speaking to The Sun, the icon said of her publicity-shy spouse, “He’s pretty much a homebody, loves staying around home. We live out on a farm. He likes to mow the fields and work on his tractors.”
Nonetheless – and perhaps because her husband chooses to shun the spotlight – Parton has had to deny rumors that her long-term friend Judy Ogle is in fact her girlfriend. The country legend cleared up the speculation by explaining to The Sun, “So people say that – because you can’t have a great relationship with a woman. I’m not gay, but I have so many gay friends, and I accept everybody for who they are.”
All in all, then, it seems that Parton is happy to live and let live. And perhaps the final word on the matter should be given to the star herself. In a 2016 chat with CNN, she remarked, “I think everybody should be treated with respect. I don’t judge people, and I try not to get too caught up in the controversy of things. I hope that everybody gets a chance to be who and what they are.”