Dolly Parton’s Mother Was Criticized by Their Neighbors for Raising Her a Certain Way

Dolly Parton stood out growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee. She wasn’t like her peers — and she knew it. While other little girls played “house” or “farm,” Parton played “country star.” She’d sing into a tin can on top of a stick and pretend it was a microphone and perform for her family’s animals. Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton, was often criticized for the way her daughter behaved, according to the Queen of Country.

Dolly Parton Performs At The Dominion Theatre in London. She's playing the guitar and singing into a microphone.
Dolly Parton performs on stage at The Dominion Theatre on March 29th, 1983 in London, United Kingdom | Pete Still/Redferns

Dolly Parton’s mother encouraged her individuality

Parton’s ambition to become a famous country star was almost scandalous in her part of Tennessee when she was a child. Most girls married at 16 and settled into their roles as homemakers.

“Oh, it set some tongues to waggin’, all right,” she told Family Circle in 1979, as recorded in the book Dolly on Dolly. “The other women were sayin’, ‘That Avie Lee’—that’s Momma—’her girls is too free for their own good.’ But Momma paid no mind. I owe a lot to her when it comes to independence.”

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The “Jolene” singer‘s mother grew up in an incredibly strict household. When she started having children, she vowed to let them be however they wanted to be.

“Now Momma was the daughter of a Fundamentalist preacher and her people was strict,” she said. “A woman wasn’t allowed to dance, to wear bright clothes. She couldn’t even cut her hair. Well, Momma married Daddy at 15—he was 17—and the first thing she did was cut her hair. She was so young, she really grew up with us kids, and as she found her own self, she taught us to be ourselves no matter what. Life was hard, but Momma made it seem beautiful. She didn’t have much to work with, but she always encouraged imagination.”

Dolly Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton, was also a singer

Music came easy and early to Parton. Like her daughter, Owens Parton was also a singer.

“I grew up in a very musical family, especially on my mother’s side,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “So it was just natural for my mom to always be singing. My mother had that old-timey voice, and she used to sing all these songs that were brought over from the Old World. They were English, Irish, Welsh, folk songs where people tell stories.”

Parton calls her mother’s voice “haunting.”

“Lord you would feel it,” wrote Parton of her mother’s singing. “There’s a famous old folk song called ‘Two Little Orphans’ about two little kids who come up to the door and are frozen to death because nobody’s answering. Mama would emphasize those moments in the lyrics when the two little orphans are ‘talking.’ It was really like being there if Mama was singing it.”

It’s a quality Parton has tried to emulate in her own singing and storytelling all these years later.

Dolly Parton didn’t listen to her critisizers

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Parton was often told not to dream too big, for fear that she’d end up disappointed. The “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” singer didn’t listen to the people who told her she was too free or too ambitious.

“You see, I’ve just always had this thing burnin’ in me, about bein’ a star and all,” she told Family Circle. “At bottom I guess I had a pretty old-timey goal. I wanted to prove somethin’ to the world and maybe to myself. I wanted to know, I had to know, that you can come from nothin’—don’t have to be educated, don’t have to be rich or sophisticated—and still make somethin’ of your life. You just got to want it so hard you can almost reach out and grab it.”