Dolly Parton on Understanding Her Mother’s Depression as She Got Older

Dolly Parton adored her mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton (1923 – 2003). She was a singer, too, with a “haunting voice.” The two shared a special connection, both being singers, that started when Parton wrote her first song when she was just a toddler.

As Parton got older, she began to understand more and more why her mother was the way she was. Looking back, the “Rockin’ Years” singer says it’s no wonder that her mother was depressed.

Dolly Parton singing on stage in 1978. She has big blonde hair and is looking somber.
Dolly Parton | ABC Photo Archives/Ann Limongello

The Partons faced many challenges

Parton, her 11 brothers and sisters, mother, and father lived in shacks in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. They didn’t have electricity or running water. The winters were especially harsh.

“We lived in these old, cold-ass houses, where we slept with our clothes on,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “You had to sleep dressed. Daddy wouldn’t let us get up until he’d built a fire and had it going. I remember us saying, ‘Daddy, is the fire hot?’ We had to wait. When we were little, we’d pee the bed and then go to school with those clothes on.”

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The snow would get into the house through the cracks in the walls. It was so cold that Parton’s parents would have to thaw water for the family to use “from the water bucket in the kitchen.”

Dolly Parton remembers her mother would often ‘be in sickness’

When times got tough, or just before times got tough, it wasn’t uncommon for Parton’s mother to fall ill.

“I remember Mom and Daddy working so hard, and I remember Mom used to get depressed,” wrote Parton. “We didn’t understand that until we were older. Every fall, she was thinking about winter coming on, not knowing if we were going to get sick and die. And Mama would always be in sickness.”

Dolly Parton feels it all

Parton’s life has given her endless stories to tell.

“All of that environment and lifestyle that I was born into I’ve been able to use in my songwriting,” she wrote. “Because my heart and mind are always open to every feeling.”

Everything that Parton’s been through — from surviving harsh winters as a child to heartbreak as an adult — she’s felt deeply. She keeps herself open for her art.

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“As a songwriter and as a person, I have to leave myself wide open,” she wrote. “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.”

Parton’s open heart is apparent in her songwriting. Emotion pours out of a Dolly Parton song.

“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,” she wrote.