The legendary Dolly Parton, who was a recent cover star here at American Songwriter, previously talked about her family and how important her kin are to her.
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“I am lucky that I was born into a very musical family,” Parton told AS.
Her family members, especially on her mother Avie Lee’s side, were all singers and played various instruments. Some still remain in the industry today. The clan was always singing at weddings and funerals, Parton said, and all the “shindigs and jamborees.” At church, too.
Her mother would sing little ditties about doing the daily chores. She provided the example for Parton to pick up the habit seamlessly. Parton’s uncle Bill, her mother’s younger brother, took an interest in her and would drive her to and fro to county fairs, local radio and TV stations, and even to the city of Nashville. From a young age, Parton sensed there was a big world out there, and she wanted a piece of it. She learned guitar at 7 years old and started to make up songs almost immediately.
[RELATED: 3 of Dolly Parton’s Favorite Dolly Parton Songs]
“That’s your foundation,” she said of her family roots. “They’re a mirror of the worst and best in you … they’re a piece of you.”
But here, we wanted to dive into that side of Parton’s life a bit more, from her mother to her father (Robert Parton) and beyond. We look at the extended family tree of the iconic artist.
In 2020, People magazine shared a clip of Parton welcoming her family on stage during her 1970s variety show, Dolly. The family sang a version of the religious hymn “In the Sweet By and By.”
“When I got my own TV show I thought, ‘I’m most definitely going to have my family on before I bring all these big celebrities because they’re the stars to me,'” Parton told People. Earlier in 1982, Parton shared that “Singing was like breathing at home.”
Some of Parton’s siblings are musical (as are some of their children, too) but some went in their own career directions, outside of the entertainment industry. In total, Parton has 11 siblings, all of whom grew up in poverty in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. They lived in a cabin with one bedroom, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.
The eldest of all the 12 kids, Willadeene was like a second mother to the family.
Later, she and sisters Cassie and Stella formed a gospel singing trio. But she put that aside for the pen, writing two family memoirs: In the Shadow of a Song: The Parton Family and Smoky Mountain Memories: Stories from the Hearts of the Parton Family. She’s also published a cookbook.
Stella Mae Parton
Stella got into the music business early, making her radio debut when she was just nine years old. She toured with sisters Cassie and Willadeene.
Later, Stella pursued a solo career, beginning in 1967. Her 1975 single, “I Want to Hold You in My Dreams Tonight,” hit the Top 10 in the Billboard Country chart, which got her a major label deal. To date, she’s released more than thirty albums. She also acted in many television shows in the ’70s. Later she appeared in Dolly’s 2015 show, Coat of Many Colors. She’s written several books, including the memoir, Tell It Sister, Tell It: Memories, Music and Miracles, to go along with three cookbooks.
In 2018, Stella was on the BBC series Celebrity MasterChef.
[RELATED: Dolly Parton Confirms and Debunks Some of the Wildest Myths About Herself]
Cassie Nan Parton
The third member of the aforementioned gospel trio, Cassie never went on to pursue a solo career. She did perform in 1970 on The Porter Wagoner Show, which at one point helped to make Dolly a star. In 2013, she performed in the Dollywood show My People.
Randy, who passed away in 2021 after fighting cancer, was a songwriter, actor, and businessman. The country star used to rock her younger brother back and forth as a baby when he cried. She even sang about these moments in the song “You Are My Christmas,” which she sang as a duet with Randy.
Randy had several country songs in the 1970s and 1980s, including one he recorded for the soundtrack of Dolly’s 1984 movie, Rhinestone. He later played bass and guitar in Dolly’s band. Randy was also known for performing in the Dollywood a cappella group, Honey Creek.
Larry Gerald Parton
Unfortunately, Larry died just four days after he was born. In her biographical film, A Coat of Many Colors, Dolly is portrayed at nine years old singing to his grave.
Floyd Estel Parton
The youngest brother, Floyd has been Dolly’s longtime songwriting partner. He helped pen the 1991 hit “Rockin’ Years,” which is on the album Eagle When She Flies. Floyd died in 2018 at 61 years old.
Freida Estelle Parton
Freida was in a punk band in the 1980s. She also sang background vocals on some of Dolly’s LPs. Today, Freida is an ordained minister at her own wedding chapel in Sevierville, Tennessee.
Rachel Ann Parton
Rachel is a now-retired singer and actress. She is also the youngest sister of Dolly—though that’s just by a few minutes since Freida and Rachel are twins.
Rachel moved to Nashville to live with Dolly when she was just 13 (Dolly was 18). It was then she started to pursue a career, offering at times a hard rock sound. Later, she was a frequent performer at Dollywood, after several marriages and even filing for bankruptcy.
From 1982-1988, she played Doralee Rhodes Brooks on the television show Nine to Five. In 2014, she performed at the Red Tent Women’s Conference in Tennessee with Dolly and Stella.
Bobby Lee, Coy Denver, David Wilburn
The three brothers never pursued entertainment and led relatively private lives.
[RELATED: 9 of the Saddest Dolly Parton Songs That You Should Be Listening To]
The tongue-out, eye-catching musician and performer, who is also releasing an album later this year, is famously Dolly’s goddaughter. Cyrus, who boasts hits like “Wrecking Ball,” has been a coach on The Voice and a standout guest on shows like The Howard Stern Show and late-night programs all over the dial. She has a big, gritty voice and a knack for drawing attention.
The Next Generation
Dolly and her husband Carl Dean have helped to raise several of Dolly’s younger siblings in Nashville and that has continued to include the next generation of nieces and nephews who refer to Dolly as Aunt Granny and Dean as Uncle Peepaw. Dolly and Dean don’t have any children of their own.
Now, at 76, Dolly is honest with herself. There is no guarantee for any of us, but that promise gets slimmer as one’s age gets higher. Nevertheless, Parton remains driven. She wants to continue her legacy if for no other reason than it will help to continue to set up her family for years—generations—to come. She’s gotten her estate in order, and her will is completed. Waking up with aches and pains some mornings reminds her this is the right choice.
And as she ponders the future, she continues to put out work and even put her name on products she believes in, like fragrances and confections. She wants to do more movies and record more songs. She even mentioned the possibility of a “network.” (Could a Dolly Parton TV channel be coming soon?) For someone who grew up dirt poor, this is evidence she’s touched the constellations. All because she had an instinctual knack for rhyming and writing songs.
“I love that I can express every thought and feeling that I’ve ever had through music,” Parton says. “Music is the voice of the soul, and it will live on forever.”
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic