She can sing, she can act and she can tell a story that hits you right in the heartstrings

By Drew Mackie
Updated January 19, 2016 05:10 PM
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Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

If you’re a Dolly Parton fan, you probably have no shortage of reasons to love her. She’s a great singer, of course, and proved her worth on the big screen with hits like 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias.

However, you can also love Dolly for just being herself, and perhaps uniquely among other celebrities, she’s offered a lot of herself through stories about her life that reflect that there’s a grounded, level-headed person beneath all that makeup and hair. In honor of her 70th birthday (today!), we’ve collected some of the anecdotes that get straight to the heart of who Dolly Parton really is and why her fans love her so much.

1. Yes, there was an actual coat of many colors

It’s probably the most famous account of Parton growing up poor, but any collection of stories about Parton’s homespun wisdom has to start with the song “Coat of Many Colors.” The fourth of 12 children, Parton grew up in a one-room cabin in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. She couldn’t afford to buy new clothes, and her 1971 song “Coat of Many Colors” is actually an autobiographical account of her mother cobbling together scrap fabric into a winter coat for Parton.

The children at school made fun of her, but as Parton recalls in the story, she wasn’t bothered by their meanness, and this comes out beautifully in the chorus: “I couldn’t understand it / For I felt I was rich / And I told them of the love / My momma sewed in every stitch / And I told ’em all the story / Momma told me while she sewed / And how my coat of many colors / Was worth more than all their clothes.”

That’s one of the sweetest sentiments ever expressed in a pop song, and it would be touching even as a fictional account of a young girl standing tall in spite of being judged by her peers. The fact that it’s true, however? That should hit you square in the heart. That was surely the intent behind the song’s transformation into a TV movie in 2015. The actual coat, by the way, is now on display at a museum in Dollywood.

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2. She has the best celebrity Christmas story ever

“I must have been 8 or 10 years old, and my mother had never had a wedding ring,” as Parton recalled to Johnny Carson on a 1990 episode of The Tonight Show. “There was a houseful of kids around that time and Daddy decided he was finally going to buy Momma a wedding ring. Of course, that meant that nobody else was going to get any gifts. That costs money.”

Parton has told the story a few other times in interviews, and her telling of it to Carson downplays just how magnanimous she and her siblings are: They were perfectly happy to forgo presents if that meant that their mother would finally get a wedding ring, which was something their father had never been able to give her before. But as Parton tells the story, it made for one of her family’s happiest Christmases. That’s powerful.

3. She has the nicest story about bed-wetting you’ll ever hear

Interviewed for the cover of Playboy in 1978, Parton stayed clothed but revealed a lot of her history. And one of the stories she told underscored just how poor her family was when she was a child: getting peed on by the many younger siblings with whom she shared a bed was just part of life. Not that it seemed to bother her much, but her drive to make do with what she had is one of the reasons people love her today – and probably one of the reasons she became such a success.

“The kids peed on me every night there were so many of us. We slept three and four in the bed. I would wash every night, and as soon as I go to bed, the kids would wet on me and I’d have to get up in the morning and do the same thing. [But] that was the only warm thing we knew in the wintertime. That was almost a pleasure – to get peed on – because it was so cold. Lord, it was as cold in the room as it was outside.”

4. She never felt bad about growing up poor, however

In a 2015 interview with Today promoting Coat of Many Colors, Parton recalled why she and her family members didn’t get hung up on the fact that they lacked material possessions.

“We always made jokes and said we didn’t even know we were poor till some smart aleck up and told us,” she said. “We didn’t have any money, but we were rich in things that money don’t buy. You know, like love and kindness and understanding.”

“My momma … she’d always say, ‘Now, don’t you say we’re poor,’ ” Parton continued. ” ‘There’s a lot of people in worse shape than us. We’re not poor, you know, we’re just … ain’t got a lot of stuff, but there’s a lot of stuff we do have.’ ”

5. She’s similarly humble about her signature look

She doesn’t claim to have invented her look, and she’s straightforward about her inspiration. As Parton explained in a 1999 interview with the New York Times Magazine, “I patterned myself after this woman that was the town tramp back home. She had blonde hair and high heels and red fingernails and lips, and to me she was like what movie stars were to other kids,” she said. “We’d see her, and I’d say, ‘Oh, look, she’s got plastic goldfish in her heels!’ and my mama would say, ‘She ain’t nothin’ but trash, nothin’ but trash,’ and I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s what I’m gonna be when I grow up – trash!’ ”

6. She started cultivating that look at a young age

A limited budget meant being resourceful. “I used to steal shoulder pads out of my grandma’s winter coat to make me a push-up bra,” she told Today. “My poor grandma would say, ‘Where’s my shoulder pads?’ ”

And in the Playboy interview, she revealed she’d create her own lipstick. “We didn’t have money to buy makeup anyway but we used to have this medicine and mercurochrome, and that’s what I’d take as my lipstick when I was a little kid,” she said. “I always wanted to wear makeup. I’d paint my lips and see there wasn’t nothing Daddy could do – he couldn’t rub that off then I would do that and I would blot it off and Daddy’d say, ‘Come here get that lipstick off you.’ I’d say real calm, “It’s my natural color daddy.’ ”

7. And she’s been open about the process of creating her look today

“I was not a natural beauty, and I always wanted to be pretty. I just have such an outgoing personality that it’s fitting that I would be overdone,” she told Southern Living magazine in 2014. “Trust me when I say: In the mornings, I gotta get up and paint on stuff. Those people who wake up and they re just beautiful, they’re just born that way. Well that ain’t me. I gotta work for everything I’ve got.”

She also spoke freely about her plastic surgery. “Well, I never would have said I did it if I hadn t got caught at it. But I wasn’t gonna lie about it! So then after I got caught and I didn’t lie about it, people started asking me. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, what the hell?’ After so much time, after you get older, it can help people.”

8. Boy George once gave her a run for the money, style-wise

In 1999, Parton recorded a new version of “Your Kisses Are Charity” with Boy George – and yes, a team-up between these two seems like both the strangest thing ever and the most natural team-up in pop music history. Reflecting on the experience, Parton told the New York Times Magazine that Boy George had out-glammed her onstage.

“He’s the sweetest thing in the world. I was just jealous that he outdressed me,” she said. “During rehearsal, he had on his boy clothes, and then when we came out onstage he had on this long rhinestone necklace and earrings. I leaned over and said, ‘I wish I’d known – I could have gone a lot further than this!’ ”

9. She’s proud of Dollywood, but she won’t get on the rides

Parton opened Dollywood in 1986, and today it boasts several rides, including the Wild Eagle, a “wing roller coaster” that premiered in 2012. Parton is not among those who have braved it, though. But as she told Act Two magazine last year, she’s not above faking it.

“I don’t ride the rides,” she said. “We did build the biggest ride ever called Wild Eagle and I kept hearing, ‘Dolly, you gotta ride this one.’ I said, ‘I don’t have to do anything, darlin,’ and I’m not gettin’ on it the funny thing is we had a bunch of Dolly look-a-likes, 14 of ’em, on the ride. When the ride stopped, I ran behind the thing and made it look like I just got off! I’m clever that way! I got too much to lose – like my hair, my nails, my boobs!”

10. She gave back to her family – and those gifts remain in the family

In a YouTube clip uploaded in December, Parton explained that one of her greatest joys was being able to take care of the family that made her the success she is today.

“My daddy always drove a truck, and I bought my daddy a big, blue truck. And he was so proud of that, he never would trade it in. He kept it. Daddy’s gone now, but I still have the truck on some of the property that I bought that daddy used to own,” she said. “Little nieces and nephews, if they want to play in pa-paw’s truck, well that’s what they can do.”

“That same year, I bought my momma a Cadillac. Of course, I kept trading hers in every few years, because she was so proud of that. The last one was a gold Cadillac. It went back to me when Momma passed,” Parton explained. “My husband drives it a lot. Because it was Momma’s car, and I still drive it sometimes, I call it ‘the Dolly Momma.’ So everybody knows not to mess with the Dolly Momma, because that’s a precious thing. I was always proud that I could do for my family when I started making some money.”