Fifty years since her first album was released, the country icon continues to inspire the world with her powerful music, rich spirit, and generosity to her Tennessee mountain home
For Dolly Parton, the holidays are a celebration of faith and family—two things that were just as important to her as a Tennessee farm girl growing up in the 1950s as they are to her as a country music legend today. "We were poor, but we had one another," she says of those childhood Christmases in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Dolly Rebecca Parton Dean is the fourth of twelve children born to Robert Lee Parton, a Sevierville, Tennessee, farmer, and his wife, Avie Lee Parton, the daughter of a preacher from South Carolina. Dolly's parents raised their family in a two-bedroom log cabin that had no electricity. The actual area was known as Mountain View. Some referred to it as Locust Ridge; Dolly's family just called it "over in the holler."
"Christmas for us was homemade," she remembers. "We would go into the woods with Daddy, searching for just the right tree and fighting over who would get to carry the ax. Then we would drag our tree back home and decorate it with strings of popcorn, buttons, and foil eggs—anything we could find."
Back then, there wasn't much money for store-bought gifts, but Dolly's parents did the best they could to make the holidays special. "Mama and Daddy would get us all a little something every year," says Dolly. "They made a lot of our toys, and we made paintings or wood carvings for one another. There would always be singing on Christmas Eve. Mama did most of it, but we all loved to sing along."
The Parton children worked the fields and entertained themselves in the same ways many Southern farm kids did back then: They climbed trees, caught June bugs, mashed pokeberries, and chased butterflies. Her parents taught the kind of lessons and values you don't learn in a schoolroom. "At home, we learned about God, nature, and how to care for other people and for the land," she recalls. Some of Dolly's fondest memories of childhood are of her mother reading stories aloud from the Bible while she and her sisters and brothers would act them out. "I loved the stories of the Bible," she says. "Mama made them all come to life. I got my gift for embellishment from her."
As a young child, Dolly dreamed about what it was like on the other side of the mountain. "Mama would say to me, "You and your dreams,"" Dolly remembers. But while her parents kept her grounded, she credits them for giving her the confidence, courage, and wings to fly. "I believe that all good things come from God. And after you believe in Him, you've got to believe in yourself. You've got to believe that you are special," she says.
It's that irrepressible spirit that has made Dolly a rarity—she's a superstar, grounded in faith, who has never once stopped sharing her fortune with those who are in need. Beyond her long list of artistic accomplishments—the albums, the movies and the television shows, the awards and accolades—her philanthropy is what deepens and distinguishes her life's work.
In the eighties, she created the Dollywood Foundation to promote education in the mountains where she grew up. Last year, when the wildfires swept through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, she responded to the devastation with the My People Fund, which provided $1,000 a month to newly homeless victims for six months. Then she partnered with the Mountain Tough Recovery Team to give ongoing support to the families affected by the fires. That's putting your money where your heart is.
WATCH: Dolly Parton Visits Superhero Kids at Vanderbilt's Children's Hospital
And she's not stopping. Dolly debuted her first-ever children's album, I Believe in You, just in time for this holiday season. All 14 tracks are written and performed by her with the proceeds from sales going to Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a program she created to help children learn to read in her native Sevier County. This literacy initiative was established in 1995 to honor her father. "Daddy could not read or write. He was smart, but he was crippled by the fact that he could not read. It broke my heart," she says.
The impact of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library has expanded far beyond her home county, with books being delivered to 1.1 million children in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia each month. Some of the kids even call Dolly "The Book Lady." "They think I bring them and put them in the mailbox myself," she says, laughing. To date, her charity has mailed over 96 million books to children all around the world. "I want to do what I can," she says, "to make sure children grow up with a song in their heart and a book in their hand."