Dolly Parton has been the butt of a lot of jokes for her physical attributes (some real, some implanted), but they've helped make her the most famous female singer in country music. It hasn't hurt, of course, that she possesses one of America's great songwriting voices and that she's an extremely intelligent businesswoman.
Parton's life began in the extremely rural Sevier County, Tennessee, where she was born January 19, 1946, to a family that would ultimately have 12 children (two of Parton's siblings, Randy and Stella, would also find moderate country success). Parton's musical gift manifested itself early--she claims she made up her own songs before she could read or write, and she was recording for Gold Band Records at 11 and played the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time at 13. Parton moved to Nashville when she turned 18, the day after graduating high school, and made her first records there for Monument Records in 1967. The same year she replaced popular female singer Norma Jean on Porter Wagoner's popular TV show and remained there until a bitter separation in 1974. She also signed with RCA, the label for which Wagoner recorded. Wagoner and Parton would score 14 top 10 hits as a duo during their time together, including "The Last Thing On My Mind" and "Please Don't Stop Loving Me," but Parton also began to have considerable success on her own. She joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1969, and became known as a riveting storyteller who wove tales of rural life like "Coast Of Many Colors," "My Tennessee Mountain Home" and "In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)."
Parton's career took off when she left Wagoner. In 1974, she reached Number One with "Jolene," "Love Is Like A Butterfly" and "I Will Always Love You," which would become her most successful song. Parton has had a hit with the song in three decades (1974, 1982 and 1995), and when Whitney Houston sang it in her 1992 film The Bodyguard, it became one of the biggest hits of all time. Parton's records started crossing over to the pop charts in 1977, and she had three No. 1 hits there--"Here You Come Again," the title song from the 1980 film 9 To 5 and "Islands In The Stream," a duet with Kenny Rogers written by the The Bee Gees.
Wagoner and Parton were named the Country Music Association's Vocal Group Of The Year in 1968 and its top vocal duo in 1970 and 1971. On her own, Parton has won the association's female vocalist award twice (1975, 1976) and its Entertainer Of The Year award (1978). She won a Grammy for her album Here You Come Again, two for "9 To 5" and another for The Trio, an album recorded with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
As Parton moved into the mainstream arena, she moved outside music as well. She has starred in an number of films, including 9 To 5, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, Steel Magnolias, Rhinestone and Straight Talk. She formed her own TV and film production company. Her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, had become the most popular tourist attraction in Tennessee by 1996.
Parton recorded for RCA for almost 20 years and had more than 70 hits there, but little of her catalog remains in print outside of a number of compilations, all of which leave out major singles. Even two discs, The RCA Years 1967-1986 only whet the appetite; her three volumes in RCA's 20-cut Essential series (two solo, one with Wagoner) do a reasonable job of capturing different periods of her career there. After leaving RCA, Parton moved to Columbia from the late '80s to the mid-'90s, where her biggest hits included "Why'd You Come In Here Lookin' Like That" and "Rockin' Years," a duet with Ricky Van Shelton, and then recorded one album of covers for Rising Tide. Her recent recordings often champion other talent like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, with whom she cut Honky Tonk Angels in 1993, and bluegrass singers Alison Krauss and Suzanne Cox. She no longer is a major factor on the charts; instead, she seems to be making albums for her own personal pleasure (from 1998's Hungry Again to 2002's Halos & Horns)--surely a worthy career goal.