The Rural Poverty That Created Dolly Parton

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The beloved icon's songs are imbued with the hell she lived through—and laughter about it.
This article is excerpted from She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Smarsh. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The fourth of 12 siblings, Dolly Parton was born on a small farm in 1946; her father, Lee, paid the doctor a bag of grain for the delivery. As those familiar with her music know, growing up wearing dresses made of feed sacks didn't make her sorrowful but rather grateful—a fact that, paradoxically, has helped make her a very rich woman. The royalties for "Coat of Many Colors," her enduring 1971 song about cherishing a garment her mother sewed from rags in spite of being shamed for it at school, roll in year after year.

Of her many hits, Parton has described that tribute to her mother, Avie Lee, as the one most special to her. She says she got her musical talent from that side of her family, whom she describes as "dreamers." During Parton's childhood, radios, record players, and electricity hadn't yet reached the rural poor, and they entertained themselves in their own homes with old ways passed down from European country peasantry. Her maternal grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher, played fiddle and wrote songs.

Avie Lee's brother, Billy, played guitar and noticed young Dolly's musical talent. He helped get her onto the Knoxville radio and TV show Cas Walker's Farm and Home Hour. Billy reportedly bought Dolly her first proper guitar, a child-sized acoustic Martin, when she was 8 (replacing the one she'd made from an old mandolin and two found strings). He helped her write her first single, "Puppy Love," penned when she was 11 and recorded in 1959, when she was 13, after a 30-hour bus ride to Goldband Records in Lake Charles, Louisiana, with her grandma.

By that time, rock and roll—rooted in Southern Black culture—was sweeping white America and infusing country sounds. It showed up in the up-tempo dance beat of "Puppy Love" and in Uncle…
Sarah Smarsh
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