Dolly Parton Was Too Upset to Sing a Willie Nelson Song at Her Grandmother’s Funeral

Dolly Parton has always been open with her fans, from self-deprecating jokes to more vulnerable moments. She shared that her grandmother loved a Willie Nelson song and hoped Parton would sing it at her funeral. Ultimately, Parton was too emotional to do so. Still, she found a sweet way to dedicate the song to her grandma. 

Dolly Parton wears a denim jacket and Willie Nelson wears a black shirt. He plays guitar.
Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson | Bob D’Amico/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Dolly Parton avoids funerals

When she was growing up in Tennessee, Parton formed a close relationship with a neighbor she called Aunt Marth. According to Parton, one of her first memories is Aunt Marth bouncing her on her knee.

“She would sit me on her knee, and she would sing ‘Tiptoe tiptoe, little Dolly Parton/Tiptoe tiptoe, ain’t she fine?/ Tiptoe tiptoe, little Dolly Parton/She’s got a red dress just like mine,’” Parton told The Independent. “I remember saying ‘Sing it again, sing it again.’ I remember her before I do my mom and daddy or anything. It’s the strangest thing.”

Parton was stunned when she attended Aunt Marth’s funeral, not fully comprehending that she was dead. When she tried to run away, some boys in her family began describing the way Aunt Marth’s body would decompose.

“They kept on until I got sick to my stomach,” she wrote in the book Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. “Two of them held my hand and made me touch the body. It had a spirit-shattering effect on me that I have never quite outgrown. To this day, I will not go to funerals, and I cannot look at a dead body.”

Her grandmother wanted her to sing a Willie Nelson song at her funeral

Years later, Parton said her grandmother became particularly fond of a Willie Nelson song, “Family Bible.” She explained that her grandmother had been sick for years, and Parton used to sing for her. 

“She’d ask me to sing songs, mostly gospel songs, sacred songs, and she used to listen to all those country radio stations and preachers on the radio, and she’d make me sing this particular song,” Parton told Nelson on her TV series Dolly. “She’d always ask me if I would sing that at her funeral when she passed away. When she did pass away, I just couldn’t do it because … I just couldn’t do it.”

With Nelson on set with her, though, he and Parton launched into a rendition of the song that she dedicated to her grandmother.

“We’ll do this for Grandma today, OK?” she said. 

“I can see us sittin’ round the table when from the family Bible dad would read. I can hear my mother softly singing ‘Rock of ages, Rock of ages cleft for me,’” they sang.

Dolly Parton places a high value on family

Parton has always been close with her family. Though she doesn’t have children of her own, she’s filled a grandmotherly role for some of her relatives.

“I grew up in a big old family with eight kids younger than me and several of my brothers and sisters came to live with me early on in my life,” she told People. “I’ve loved their kids just like they’re my grandkids, and now I’ve got great-grand-kids!”

She also shared the sweet name that the younger generations in her family call her.

“They call me ‘Aunt Granny,’” she said. “Now I’m GeeGee, which is great-granny. I often think, it just wasn’t meant for me to have kids so everybody’s kids can be mine.”

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