American celebrity is oftentimes defined by a signature “rags-to-riches story,” none more poignant or popular than that of Dolly Parton. Beginning in the muddied hills of Appalachia, Dolly’s tale is one of defying odds and statistics, scrambling up the steep mountain of poverty and out of the tiny shack that housed her (along with eleven siblings and her parents) and into the limelight of stardom. But if Dolly threw off the yoke of destitution to become one of the world’s most famous country western artists, completely defying the odds, then what happened to the odds of those remaining Parton progeny? Did their sister’s blooming success delve them into further pauperdom or propel them to success—could the odds possibly be in their favor, too?
Of Dolly’s numerous siblings, it is the path of Stella, Dolly’s junior of three years, that most similarly traces that of the country icon. But, contrary to popular belief, following in the footsteps of a successful sibling brought more effort than ease for Stella. By forging her own way with pure grit and determination, unaided by her sister, Stella carved for herself a unique place in the consciousness of American music.
Stella was born May 4, 1949, and grew up in her family’s one-room cabin in Sevierville, Tennessee. The sixth of twelve children in a notoriously poor household, Stella was tasked with much of the abundant childcare and filled the burdensome role of the middle child. But, much like other members of her family, Stella found solace in the gentle, swaying tunes of gospel. She and big-sister Dolly would sit on the wooden steps of their home, all long legs and golden hair, and compose their own ditties to the notes of nature. A familial aptitude for music made the process both therapeutic and engaging, a welcome distraction from the mundane and difficult aspects of such a life, but even singing had its drawbacks for Stella. Dolly, as the older sister, often got frustrated with Stella’s stumbling songwriting, abandoning her at times and singing solo.
Despite such sisterly tiffs, Dolly and Stella remained inseparable through childhood, embarking on ventures into the world of entertainment together. When Stella was just seven years old, she and Dolly began their careers in performance on a local television show based out of Knoxville, Tennessee. Their foray into entertainment was the beginning of a long career for them both. Two years later, Stella was initiated into the world of radio, along with her sisters Willadeene and Cassie, singing gospel numbers and commercial jingles for all of eastern Tennessee. Stella and various members of her family, including her mother, continued to book performances and singalongs throughout her youth.
As a teen Stella began writing her own songs (this time without the admonitions of her big sister—who was already rising to fame in Nashville). Even from such a young age, her tunes always involved a signature singsong-y honesty that would propel her to success. Shortly after graduating from high school (and beginning her first of four marriages and divorces), Stella moved to Washington, D.C., for a gig at the Hillbilly Haven Club, and then finally the country-western capital, Nashville.
Unlike her sister, Stella lacked the support of industry professionals or knowledgeable family members as she worked to establish her career. What she did have, however, was a sincere belief in her abilities and the tenacity to make her dreams come true. Upon arrival in Nashville Stella founded her own record label, Soul, Country and Blues, and released her first solo album through her own label, I Want to Hold You in My Dreams Tonight in 1975. The title track from Stella’s debut was a hit.
By sculpting her own success, Stella finally believed she would receive approval in the eyes of Dolly. When Dolly’s label called Stella for a meeting, she believed her moment had come—her dream of performing in a duo with her older sister was a near tangible mirage on an advancing horizon. But, to Stella’s dismay, the message the label gave her was entirely the opposite: quit singing or drop the Parton name. Dolly’s executives feared Stella’s growing success would hurt the booming career of her sister.
Never one to surrender, Stella dismissed the menacing orders of Dolly’s label and continued her career in singing. In 1976 she signed a major record deal with Elektra, continuing to produce a string of country hits through the ’70’s and ’80’s. Stella also branched into different projects, guest-starring on the popular television series The Dukes of Hazard and performing in a variety of Broadway shows. Her most recent project, an album of EDM (electronic dance music) covers, proves that she’s not just a talented artist but a malleable one, welcoming the whispering winds of change in a new millennium.
Through it all, Stella and Dolly retain their unbreakable sisterly bond. Despite Dolly’s dismissal of Stella as a singing partner and their undeniably rough patches, the sisters remain close and supportive. When Stella released her memoir in 2011 documenting the pain she had suffered through the years, rather than offer a rebuttal, Dolly offered an apology. The duo prove that no matter the obstacle, sisterly tiff or celebrity feud, the bond and love of family is always stronger than its adversaries.
Hear an Impromptu Backstage Performance by Stella Parton
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