How do you begin to honor something as integral to your identity as the place where you grew up? Most folks from small towns or rural regions learn it’s often easier to describe your home in terms of what’s relatively close to it, rather than where you’re actually from. To save time or avoid confusion, it’s simpler to pick the nearest well-known city, geographical landmark or place that otherwise matters enough to exist in our common cultural lexicon. While less concerned with concision, Dolly Parton illustrates this habit while proudly describing her geographical roots in her first big interview with a major country music publication, Music City News, in 1967.
“It’s Sevierville, Tennessee, a little town between Knoxville and Gatlinburg. You might shorten it by sayin’ ‘the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.’ But if you wanna know the names of some hollers and some ridges and knobs where I lived, I was born at Pittman Center on Pittman Center Road. Then, when I was about five years old, we lived in a place called Boogertown. It really wasn’t the name of it, but that was what everybody called it. Then we moved to a place called Locust Ridge, and I lived there for several years. We owned the whole big farm. We just farmed and that’s all we did.”
It’s on this farm in Locust Ridge that we find the setting and cover star for her 1973 concept album, My Little Tennessee Mountain Home. Released when Dolly was 27 years old, the introductory track finds her reading an old letter she wrote to her parents when she left home to chase a music career in Nashville at age 18. Her dispatch from Music City embodies a familiar feeling, no matter where you come from: going off on your own, only to find you miss all the trappings of home that you never noticed or appreciated. “I didn’t realize how much I loved you and all them noisy kids until I left,” she recites over a solitary harmonica playing "Home, Sweet Home.” This leads us into “I Remember,” where Dolly fondly shares a vivid list of details from her time growing up in rural Appalachia: meadows of golden wheat, sugarcane, songbirds, home-made toys — but most notably, the ever-present love of her parents.
“Through all the hard times and everything we went through we had Mom and Daddy. They were bigger than us. They were wiser than us. And we felt like no matter what was going on, it was all going to be all right,” she wrote about the song in her 2020 book Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “To really maneuver that brood of kids, in that part of the world, with no real money coming in, just trying to survive in the winter of pneumonia or worse, it’s a lot to think about, a lot to write about, a lot to be grateful for.”
Though hardships and pain could’ve easily defined her childhood, My Tennessee Mountain Home paints a world filled with warmth and wonder, a reflection of her parents’ efforts to ensure love and imagination were paramount. Dolly Rebecca Parton was born to sharecroppers, Robert Lee Parton Sr. and Avie Lee Owens, the fourth of twelve children: Willadeene, David Wilburn, Coy Denver, Bobby Lee, Stella Mae, Cassie Nan, Randel Huston, Larry Gerald, Estel Floyd, and twins Freida Estelle and Rachel Ann. As detailed in the song “Dr. Robert F. Thomas,” she was delivered by one of the region's only doctors, who “delivered more than half the babies in those mountains” and worked for very little money. (Her parents paid for her birth with a sack of cornmeal). The family was dirt poor, sharing a tiny log cabin with no electricity or running water. In the winter, the snow came in through the walls. The family slept bundled in their clothes to stay warm, sometimes having to attend school the next day in urine-soaked clothes from the night before. Some nights, it was so cold that the water in their water bucket froze. But, her Locust Ridge home was an abode so important to her identity that she later built and furnished a replica for her theme park, Dollywood. The reproduction was built by Bobby Lee and the interior reproduced by Avie Lee. The old floral wallpaper in each of the two small rooms is decorated with cast iron pans, photographs, lace curtains, handmade items, old newspapers and other “original family treasures,” like a straw hat and an old calendar. At one end, a cradle and a rocking chair are crowded next to two colorful patchwork quilt-covered beds, where Dolly’s said they slept three or four kids to each. Near the beds, a large cast iron kettle is the centerpiece to a stone hearth, dangling over the logs.
“We might have been poor, but we didn't know it / We'd heard that word but we didn't know what it meant / Oh, we used to have such a good life / And the days that I knew then are the happiest I've known,” she sings on the buoyant “Old Black Kettle,” an ode to that pot in which her mom used to cook the family’s meals and all the other simple things that no longer exist. This relentless and often sacred esteem for the simple details and the ability to cultivate joy during dark times are themes that show up time and again on Dolly’s discography, and especially on My Tennessee Mountain Home. As she alludes to in her remake of “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” every member of the family was expected to work hard on the farm or tend to the younger children, and Dolly was especially inspired by her father’s unwavering work ethic. She penned the song “Daddy’s Working Boots,” comparing the unwavering foundational nature of his trusty footwear to the role her dad served in their family. She describes him as a deeply intelligent and resourceful man who never received the opportunity to learn to read or write, a fact he was ashamed of. After her rise to fame, her dad’s story led her to found and lead the Imagination Library, a book program that mails books to children from birth until age 5 and has distributed over 130 million books so far. Illiteracy and limited access to education and other resources were unfortunately common in her community and region.
“Where I came from, people never dreamed of venturing out. They just lived and died there,” she told Playboy in 1978. “To me, a little kid coming from where I did and having that ambition and sayin’ I wanted to be a star, people would say, ‘Well, it’s good to daydream, but don’t get carried away.’”
But the same oppressive circumstances that she lived under in her childhood gave Dolly her edge as a songwriter, and eventually led to her being able to leave them for more. The musical history and storytelling of Appalachia is embedded deeply into the sonics of My Tennessee Mountain Home. Each detailed narrative, each weeping harmonica line, each clawhammer strike, each easy-to-remember folk song structure form an unspoken homage to the past and folk traditions that made her. On “Down on Music Row,” the album’s final track that takes place after she’s left home for Nashville, we catch a glimpse of young Dolly, still struggling yet on the precipice of actualizing her dreams, eating stale bread on RCA’s steps and washing her face in the Hall of Fame fountain.
“All that environment and lifestyle that I was born into I’ve been able to use in my songwriting. Because my heart and mind are always open to every feeling,” she wrote in Songteller. “As a songwriter and as a person, I have to leave myself wide open. I suffer a lot, because I am open to so much. I hurt a lot, and when I hurt, I hurt all over. Because I can’t harden my heart to protect myself. I always say that I strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it. I just draw from everything I ever was — exactly where I’m from, how it all happened, and exactly who I am — because that’s why I’m here today.”
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.