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Meet Dolly Parton’s Parents, Their Influences and Humble Beginnings

Avie Lee Owens + Robert Parton: A Closer Look At Dolly Parton's Parents

Dolly Parton’s parents – Robert Lee Parton Sr. and Avie Lee Caroline – have long been credited by the Queen of Country for her musical abilities and business savvy. 

Though Dolly admitted to growing up poor – being one of twelve children – and that money was always so tight for the family, she is beyond grateful for her parents, who surrounded her with love and support as a child that ultimately led her down the road of stardom.

Let’s take a look back at Dolly Parton‘s humble beginnings in the lives of her parents.

RELATED: Top 10 Dolly Parton Songs You Should Definitely Listen To

Her Father Worked Different Jobs To Provide For His Family

Born in 1921 – Dolly’s father, Robert Lee Parton Sr., or better known as Lee – came from a long line of farmers. He would toil as a sharecropper during his early adulthood, which was a distinctive and entirely non-lucrative arrangement wherein a harvest’s portion was used to pay to the landowners as rent.

However, when Dolly turned five in 1951, Lee managed to acquire his own piece of land in Sevier County, Tennessee, which he used in farming tobacco and raising livestock. At the same time, he also worked construction jobs to help fund his large family’s needs.

In her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, Dolly wrote about how her father has supported the entire family “by the bend of his back and the sweat of his brow.”

Her Parents Paid For Her Birth With A Sack Of Oatmeal

Because money has always been an issue for the family, her parents don’t have any cash to pay the doctor who delivered her, so they had to settle for her birth with breakfast favorite, oatmeal.

Dolly Credits Her Musical Abilities To Her Mother

Dolly said she got her musical talent from her mother’s side, whom she described as “dreamers.”

Born in 1923, Dolly’s mother, Avie Lee, was of Welsh descent. Though she often suffered from poor health – in addition to being a mother of twelve by the time she was 35 – she managed to keep house and entertain her kids with ancient ballads and Smoky Mountain folklore, as well as immigrant songs which are about people who had moved to southern Appalachia more than a century earlier.

Avie Lee’s father, Jake Owens – who also played fiddle and wrote songs – was a preacher at a Pentecostal church, where Dolly had her earliest public performances, beginning at age six.

But it was Avie Lee’s brother, Billy, who saw the musical talent of young Dolly. So, he found a way to get Dolly over the Knoxville radio and TV show Cas Walker’s Farm and Home Hour. Billy had also bought Dolly her first guitar when she was only eight. It was a child-sized acoustic Martin.

Her Father Never Learned To Read And Write

The “Coat of Many Colors” singer said her father was “always kind of ashamed” because he never learned to read and write. Lee grew up with thirteen siblings back in the mountains, where there’s nothing but a one-room schoolhouse that was often located miles away. And because of the weather and conditions, kids were forced to miss school and go to work in the fields to help their families.

But despite his illiteracy, Dolly would often comment that he was among the smartest people she had ever known when it comes to business and making a profit.

He was intelligent and hard-working enough to raise all of Dolly Parton siblings. The country legend believed that only if her father had an education, “there’s no telling what he could have been.” After all, he knows how to make everything work and exactly what everything was worth – from bartering, bargaining, trading, and making money out of the tobacco crop.

Her Father Inspired Her to Launch The Imagination Library

Not only did her father spark a number of hits, but he also encouraged her to launch Imagination Library. This is a nonprofit organization that sends free books to children from birth until they start attending school in participating areas.

The country legend believes that telling her father’s story of not being able to read and write could help other people in the same situation not to feel ashamed. 

“Me telling the story about my daddy instilled some pride in people who felt like they had to keep it hidden like a secret,” she said. “I get so many letters from people saying, ‘I would never had admitted it’ or ‘I was always ashamed.'”

Lee took pride in being part of the book-giving program and couldn’t be prouder of his daughter, especially when they would refer to her as “The Book Lady.”

Her Father Would Clean The Statue Of Her Which Had Been Put Up In Her Hometown

To honor Dolly, her hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee, put up a bronze statue that can be found near the courthouse. It is there to remind residents, as well as to inform visitors, of the young cowgirl with big dreams from their city and developed into everything she desired to be.

Explaining her love and admiration for her father at Jimmy Kimmel’s Live! – the country legend revealed that his father used to place a big bucket, a big drum of water with soap, along with a broom at his truck’s back. He would then head to the statue late in the evening just to get rid of all the pigeon poop off.

Her Mother Left Her The Best Advice

Admitting that she was very much like her mother – outgoing and very verbal – Dolly said that her mother instilled in her the old saying, “To thine own self be true.”

Avie Lee would always remind her to never try becoming what somebody else wants her to be. “Listen to your heart and to what God tells you to do. And listen to me as much as you will. But be yourself,” her mother told her.

Her Mother Have Made Her A Coat Made Out Of Leftover Pieces Of Material

To make sure she stays warm even at school, Dolly’s mother would make her a coat made from scrap pieces of material.

However, when she got to school, her classmates would make fun of the coat her mother made her. So, in order to make her proud of that little coat, her mother would tell her about Joseph’s story from the Bible along with his coat of many colors.

 “So I thought, ‘Well, if it’s from the Bible, and Joseph was an important person, it has to be very special and important,'” she said.

Her Parents Have Since Passed Away

After suffering from complications of one or more strokes, the patriarch of the Parton family died at Baptist Hospital of East Tennessee in Knoxville in 2000 at age 79. His death was followed by another loss when the 80-year-old Avie Lee died three years later.

Dolly Parton’s parents married in 1939.

Dolly said she would never trade her humble upbringing for anything. In fact, she finds being poor has been great for her – witnessing her father and mother struggle and how they were able to “stretch a dollar farther than you could begin to imagine.”