The Harsh Winters Dolly Parton Survived as a Child

Dolly Parton is a survivor; she has not lived an easy life. But that’s, partially, why her songs are so good. Everything Parton has been through she’s put into her storytelling.

Parton grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee in shacks that didn’t have electricity or running water. Every winter, the singer’s mother would worry that one of her 12 children was going to die of “pneumonia or worse.”

Here’s a glimpse at what life was like for the Partons during the winter months throughout the Queen of Country’s childhood.

Dolly Parton performs at the Dominion Theatre in London in a sparkly white top and big, blond, curly hair. She's strumming a guitar and singing into a microphone.
Dolly Parton | Pete Still/Redferns

‘Daddy, is the fire hot?’

“We lived in these old, cold-ass houses, where we slept with our clothes on,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, 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.”

In the winter especially, the elements would often get into the house through the cracks in the walls. It wasn’t uncommon for the Partons to find snow on the floor of their home after a storm. 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’s parents kept their children alive in the winter

Parton recalls her “Mom and Daddy working so hard” when she was growing up. She also remembers her mother falling ill much of the time.

“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.”

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Looking back, Parton knows it must have been incredibly difficult for her parents.

“It’s never easy, no matter where you grow up,” she wrote. “But to really maneuver that brood of kids, in that part of the world, with no real money coming in, just trying to survive without dying 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. I think about my mom and dad all the time.”

Dolly Parton’s life experiences have greatly influenced her songwriting

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Though Parton’s “big imagination” is to thank for many of her songs, she also has been greatly inspired by the events in her own life.

“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.”