Dolly Parton retraces steps from East Tennessee home to Nashville's Opry circle

USA Today Entertainment 1 month ago

Dolly Parton’s family didn’t have electricity in the early days of her childhood back on the East Tennessee mountain where they made their modest home. They had a battery-operated radio and a ground wire they had to douse with water to coax a reception out of the old, metal box.

“It would whistle in and out,” she remembers, according to the Tennessean, which is a part of the USA TODAY Newtork. “Sometimes we could get it.”

When the signal was clear enough, the Partons spent Saturday nights huddled around the speaker listening to the Grand Ole Opry. 

“Just sitting there and being back in the mountains like that, the moments that it would come in, it was like hearing something from another world,” she said. “All that music and all that applause, it took you to a place you’d never been in those early days.”

Two weeks shy of her 23rd birthday, Parton joined the Grand Ole Opry on Jan. 4, 1969. More than anything, she hoped her mama and daddy were listening back home. She was sure they were, and she wanted them to be “so, so proud.” 

“It was almost like a spiritual moment for me,” she said of joining the Grand Ole Opry. “It was almost like I was in a dream.”

The Grand Ole Opry will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Parton’s induction next week with Dolly Week culminating in two Oct. 12 performances from the beloved country music icon. Dolly Week 2019 will begin Tuesday and include five consecutive nights of Dolly-themed Opry shows with performances by Bill Anderson, Dierks Bentley, Barry Gibb, Emmylou Harris, Chris Janson, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, Margo Price, Don Schlitz, Jeannie Seely, Hank Williams, Jr. and more. The artists will perform a mix of their hits and songs written, popularized, or inspired by Parton.

“We will have fans and artists from around the globe converging in one place all for the purpose of celebrating one iconic artist,” said Dan Rogers, vice president and executive producer of the Grand Ole Opry. “Dolly is unforgettable. She connects with everyone. We have male artists and female artists, young and old, from across all these genres, and they all found something in Dolly that makes them feel as if they are great friends with her.”

Price, a Grammy-nominated independent country singer/songwriter, is one of those people. 

“Dolly has been a hero of mine for so long,” she said. “I think especially because of her voice as an empowered woman in the country music industry. She’s just essential to the progress that has been made, and we have so much more to go. I’ve been covering ‘9 to 5’ to close out my shows, and I think it’s just a relevant as when she wrote it. I hope there comes a time when things seem like there’s an even playing field.”

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born Jan. 19, 1946, one of 12 children born to Avie Lee and Robert Parton. Her path to country music history originated in East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, but it was forged on the winding backroads between her native Sevier County and Nashville. She was 10 years old when her maternal uncle Billy Owens first loaded her in his car with her guitar, a blanket and some snacks and headed to Music City. Owens was only a decade older than his niece and, even though they lived in the car most times they made the trip, those memories are some of Parton’s favorites. 

She remembers they stopped in the little towns along the way and used the little bit of money they had to buy a Coke or an Orange Crush. As Owens drove, Parton played her guitar or beat out a rhythm on the dash so they could write songs.   

“We just had a great time doing it,” she said.  “We enjoyed each other because my Uncle Bill was funny, and so am I. We used to laugh so hard. We had more fun writing songs we couldn’t use, rhyming stuff.”

The backseat was Parton’s bedroom, and the front seat belonged to Owens. As she got older, the pair stopped at gas stations during their trips so Parton could wash up. She remembers putting her make-up on in the rear-view mirror.

Owens took her to the Friday Night Frolics, a sister show to the Grand Ole Opry, where she was sometimes allowed to perform. Her uncle was like a politician, she said, explaining, “he could talk anybody into anything.” He even talked people into letting them backstage at the Opry, which at the time was at Ryman Auditorium.

“It was just an amazing time,” she said of those years, estimating she was 10, 11, and 12 years old. She said they would go to the Grand Ole Opry and then walk across the alley to Tootsies Orchid Lounge.  “I was a kid … I don’t know if I was supposed to be in there or not.”

She saw the Opry stars sitting around, drinking and talking – just killing time until they were ready to go back on stage. 

Parton made her Grand Ole Opry debut when she was 13 years old alongside her Uncle Billy. Jimmy C. Newman gave up one of his weekly Saturday night spots so Parton could sing. Johnny Cash introduced her and the teenager received three encores.

“It was really an amazing time for a little kid,” she said. “All I could think about was Nashville and being a star. I enjoyed the trip to Nashville more than I enjoyed going back. But I knew one day I was going to make that trip, and I wasn’t going to have to go back so fast.”

Parton took a bus to Nashville in 1964 – the day after she graduated high school to start her career as a country singer. She was 18 years old. Fifty-five years later, she has dozens of Top 10 hits, is among the most awarded artists in country music history and still sees her songs top the charts.

Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was released the first time in the 1970s, and Whitney Houston covered it in her popular movie “The Bodyguard” in the 1990s, giving the song new life. Parton made it a habit of starring in films that became pop culture phenomenons -- “9 to 5,” “The Best Little Whore House in Texas” and “Steel Magnolias.” Most recently, she earned multiple nominations for her songs featured in Jennifer Aniston’s movie “Dumplin’.”

“Dolly represents the full package,” Trisha Yearwood said. “Dolly is so much bigger than life that everyone talks about her figure or her blonde wigs or her movies and (her theme park) Dollywood and all of that and the music has been big, but I think sometimes the songwriting skills are down the list a ways. If you go back and listen to the songs that woman has written, the melodies, she is the real deal. She’s one of the Top 5 singers in the world.”

Regardless of her other accomplishments, Parton said it was her induction into the Grand Ole Opry that made her feel like she had made it in country music.

“I’m a member of the Mother Church, of the Grand Ole Opry,” Parton remembers thinking.  “It’s the heart of the people that love country music. You can’t not want to be on the Grand Ole Opry. You can’t not want to be a member. It was just like a Broadway star in New York … if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere kind of thing. Well, this was Lower Broad, but it was still Broadway. And I felt like I had really made it as a star in country music. That is the ultimate, and I still feel that way.”

Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227, ciwatts@tennessean.com or on Twitter @CindyNWatts.

If you go

What: Dolly Week celebrating Dolly Parton's 50th anniversary as an Opry member, culminating with two performances by her on Oct. 12. 

When: The Grand Ole Opry will produce nightly shows in tribute to Dolly Parton Tuesday-Oct. 12.

Where: The Grand Ole Opry House (2804 Opryland Drive) except Thursday night's show which is at Ryman Auditorium (116 5th Ave. North)

Tickets: Tickets to Parton's Saturday night performances are sold out. However tickets start at $40 at www.opry.com or by calling 1-800-733-6779. Guided tours of the Opry House, an immersive Opry movie experience and a Dolly Parton exhibit are also available.

Tags: Music

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