Dolly Parton is one of the most beloved figures in country music, and perhaps in pop culture generally. The prolific singer and songwriter continues to tour in her seventies to sold out crowds, and she’s been performing since her preteens. She met her husband Carl Thomas Dean her first day in Nashville, where she moved for her career, and they’ve been together for over half a century.
And yet, they’re barely ever seen together. Parton and Dean offer Hollywood a perfect example of keeping your private life private, though Parton often praises her husband in interviews and uses him as inspiration for her music.
Here’s what we have managed to learn about their relationship over their many years together.
When Parton was 18 years old, she stepped into the Wishy Washy Laundromat and met her husband. It was her very first day in Nashville, and when Dean spotted her, he knew he’d found something special. ET reports that Dean said his first thought after meeting Parton was “I’m gonna marry that girl.”
He added, “My second thought was, ‘Lord she’s good lookin.’ And that was the day my life began.”
“I’d come to Nashville with dirty clothes,” Parton told the New York Times of their fateful meeting. “I was in such a hurry to get here—and after I’d put my clothes in the machine, I started walkin’ down the street, just lookin’ at my new home, and this guy hollered at me, and I waved. Bein’ from the country, I spoke to everybody. And he came over and, well, it was Carl, my husband.”
They started getting serious pretty fast. Parton was staying with her aunt and uncle, and Dean would come visit her as she looked after her young cousin during the day. It was 1964, so all they did was talk on the porch, and Parton said she “wouldn’t even take him in the house.”
But the very first day she was free, he took her to his house—to meet his parents.
“That was my first chance to go anywhere with Carl, and he drove me straight to his folks’ house and introduced me to his mother and daddy,” she remembered. “‘Cause he said he knew right the minute he saw me that that’s the one he wanted.”
After two years of dating, Dean proposed to his gal, and it was for partially practical reasons. Parton lived far from town, but she wasn’t going to move in with Dean until they got hitched. So they did and got closer to Nashville center.
But Parton’s star was on the rise, and she said her manager at the time, Fred Foster, warned her that promotion would be more difficult if she was known to be married. They toned down plans for a big wedding, and got married quietly in Georgia at the Ringgold Baptist Church. Only the pastor, his wife, and Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens, were in attendance.
“I said, ’I’ve got to have momma there,’” the singer remembered. “So I had bought a little dress, momma had bought me a Bible, some flowers on it. We grabbed momma and went back, and got married on a Monday, in a church.”
It was just in time, too, because that was the year she won her first songwriter award for “Put It Off Until Tomorrow.” Dean joined her at the Broadcast Music, Inc. dinner ceremony.
“Carl and I got dressed up, he was in a tux, and we drove to the dinner. We got out and walked up the red carpet and went inside and sat through dinner and the awards, and I went up and got my award,” she recalled later.
However, it was a turning point in their relationship.
“After the dinner, we walked back out, and they brought us our car … and we got in it and headed for home,” she said. “Carl turned to me and said, ‘Dolly, I want you to have everything you want, and I’m happy for you, but don’t you ever ask me to go to another one of them dang things again!’”
While the couple were very private, Parton did offer a tribute to Dean very early in their relationship, releasing her first solo album My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy. On the cover was a photo of fella sitting on a log in jeans and a plaid red shirt. That was her husband.
The songwriter’s massive 1973 hit “Jolene” was inspired by Dean, Parton admitted in 2008, during an interview with NPR. There was a girl with “beautiful red hair” at a show of hers which inspired her, but the fears of infidelity came from a flirtation she noticed between her husband and a woman who worked as a local bank teller.
“She got this terrible crush on my husband,” Parton claimed. “And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us—when I was saying, ‘Hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank. I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money.’ So it’s really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one.”
She was more forceful about this mysterious lady a few years later while introducing the song at the Glastonbury Festival, according to The Independent.
“I wrote that years ago when my husband … was spending a little more time with Jolene than I thought he should be,” she told the audience. “I put a stop to that. I got rid of that redhead woman in a hurry.”
In 1977, Parton was on the cover People. She described her husband in the cover interview by saying, “He’s sort of shy and quiet…What we have together is so sweet and good that I’d never want it to get jumbled up with the other.”
At that point, Dean had somehow never seen his wife perform, so there was no mixing at all. When asked about kids in the same interview, she replied, “I don’t know that I won’t have children someday. But it’s just not possible for me to bear children and leave them for somebody else to raise while I have a career. If I wait until I’m naturally too old to have children, I can always adopt them.”
Parton added, “When I listen to my own things, I think to myself, ‘I was the mother of that.’”
By the early eighties, Dean’s very existence was in question. People wondered if Parton had made him up, because he was never at her shows, on the red carpet or by her side. Parton headed to Los Angeles to film the classic movie 9 to 5 in 1980, and a year later she combatted rumors of her husband being made up in an interview with People, saying he was with her in LA the whole two month shoot.
“Carl is the one man in my life,” she said. “I would love to grow old with him. If he should die first, I may never marry again. My love is that deep.”
The couple faced rumors of a divorce, but Parton denied it, saying, “[Dean] was the man God intended for me to have. We’ll just always be together … To him it’s all a joke. There ain’t a man in this world could ever live up to my husband. That’s one of the things that keeps me from going too far.”
In a tribute to her husband, Parton covered Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on her album Halos & Horns.
“I do songs that I just love,” she said interview. “My husband has such an odd taste in music, and he loves Led Zeppelin. He’s been a ‘Led Head’ from day one and also loves bluegrass and big-band music. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was always Carl’s favorite.”
Parton added, “It was kind of like ‘our song’ because at romantic times or sweet times, we’d just be riding around in the car and if that would come on, Lord, he’d just knock us out of the car turning it up full blast.”
While a lot of Parton’s love songs are inspired by her one true love with Dean, in 2012 she said very directly that he inspired the song she wrote for her 2012 film Joyful Noise, “From Here to the Moon and Back.”
“I needed to write a beautiful love song,” she said. “I picked my husband, who I love, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write some beautiful song about him.’”
She added, “It was about my husband in the movie, played by Kris Kristofferson. So I thought in order to make it really real and really touching, I would write it about my real, true emotions about someone I really do love and have loved for more than half of my life.”
In an interview, Parton shared that she and Dean visit Ringgold, the town they were married in around their anniversary whenever they can.
“I do have an anniversary on the 30th of May and last weekend we went to Ringgold,” she revealed. “We try to go down there every year if we can. We at least go every three years. We take a trip down there and take a picnic.”
She added, “They never know that we’re there.”
The couple never had any children, which Parton has said she is fine with.
“When my husband and I were dating, and then when we got married, we just assumed we would have kids,” Parton told Billboard in 2014. “We weren’t doing anything to stop it. In fact, we thought maybe we would. We even had names if we did, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
That same year she told People, “I often think, it just wasn’t meant for me to have kids so everybody’s kids can be mine.”
When asked by People how her marriage has worked for so long, Parton replied, “My husband is a good man, first of all. He’s a deep person, but he has a great and warped sense of humor. He makes me laugh and entertains me. He’s very secure within himself.”
She continued, “They say that opposites attract, and it’s true. We’re completely opposite, but that’s what makes it fun. I never know what he’s gonna say or do. He’s always surprising me.”
“I married a really good man, a guy that’s completely different from me,” Parton told Parade of her spouse in 2015. “He’s not in show business.”
She added, “He’s not resentful of any of that…. I’m happy when I’m on stage, I’m happy when things are going great in the business, but I’m also very happy when I’m home with [Dean] and we do our little things together. We sight-see all of Tennessee and Kentucky, the areas that we can get back home from at night. Sometimes we’ll stay over at a Days Inn [motel] where we can just pull up and sneak me in. We don’t care, as long as the bed’s clean and there’s a bathroom. That’s how we live.”
Parton and Dean renewed their vows, this time at their home in Nashville.
“We’re going to get married again!” Parton told People ahead of the event. “I’ll have a beautiful wedding dress, ’cause I didn’t have a big, long wedding dress when we got married and we’ve got a suit for him, so we’re going to dress up and take a bunch of pictures.”
Afterwards, she told Rolling Stone Dean “looked like a handsome dude out of Hollywood” during the ceremony.
She described the day, saying, “We had a few family and friends around. We didn’t plan anything big at all because we didn’t want any kind of strain, any kind of tension, any kind of commotion, so we planned it cleverly and carefully. We just had just a few people who needed to be there to make sure they got the pictures and the few things that we needed. We just had fun with it.”
Afterwards, they went on a honeymoon, since they both had to get back to work the next day after their first wedding. Parton told Yahoo! that they were taking and RV trip around the country, something they like to do regular for vacations.
“We like to get out in our little RV and just be simple,” Parton told People in 2015. “I love to read, I love to cook, I love to be with my husband. I put on my little comfy clothes—I call them my baby clothes—and we just relax.”
Parton’s 2016 album Pure and Simple was created around the many stages of life and love she and Dean have shared over the years. She told Rolling Stone, “I was just trying to think about all the different colors of love through the years. I thought, ‘Well I’m going to write about mine and Carl’s relationship. It’s just a pure and simple relationship,’ so it started with that and then I thought, ‘Well why don’t I just write a whole album of love songs?’”
Two tracks, “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” and “Tomorrow Is Forever” were written decades ago soon after they tied the knot.
“I wrote those back in the early, early days of our marriage,” she said. “I had those two songs on albums years ago back in the ’70s. So I just pulled those out again because I thought they were precious.”
Parton appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1978, and her husband was apparently a huge fan. For his July 20th birthday, Parton recreated the image wearing one of their iconic suits and ears, and shared a clip of the event with her fans. She gifted him framed shots of the two pictures side-by-side.
“Today is July 20, it’s my husband Carl’s birthday,” she said. “My husband always loved the original cover, so I was trying to think of something to do to make him happy. He still thinks I’m a hot chick, after 57 years, and I’m not gonna try to talk him out of that. And I hope he agrees.”
She captioned the clip, “It’s always #HotgirlSummer for my husband Carl.”
Parton shared rare pic of her husband in which is wearing a t-shirt with her name on it and holding her hand. In the caption, she wrote, “Find you a partner who will support you like my Carl Dean does!”
Later that month, she shared another throwback pic for Thanksgiving of the pair sitting together in the old days.
For Valentine’s Day, Parton continued to go through the old files and offered a photo of Dean kissing her on the cheek for the romantic holiday.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! Remember to squeeze your loved ones a little tighter today and tell them you love ’em!” she wrote.
In an interview with Better Homes & Gardens, Parton painted a picture of what the holidays are like for her and Dean. Their traditions include red and green pancakes on Christmas morning, and chocolate-covered cherries are enjoyed, something Parton’s parents once did. Dean also always gives his wife a poem or sings her a song her wrote himself. The singer says husband “has a beautiful voice.”
Parton told ET Canada that sharing a sense of humor is the key to her marriage of six decades.
“We both have a warped sense of humor, ” she said. “And I think humor, honestly, is one of the best things when you’re married like that. Even if you have a problem, if you have a great sense of humor, if you say something you can’t take back [you] usually have some crazy way of getting out of it.”
It also helps that with their very different careers and schedules they’re not “in each other’s face all the time.”
“He’s not in the business, so we have different interests, but yet we have the things we love to do together,” she explained. “So it was meant to be, I think. He was the one I was supposed to have and vice versa.”
After all these years, people still want to know about Parton’s mysterious husband. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Parton called Dean a “loner.”
“He’s kind of a loner, so he doesn’t really like being with anybody but me,” she said. “He’s not one to kind of get out there and socialize that much. He loves living on the farm, taking care of the property as he has for all these many years.”
Aimée Lutkin is the weekend editor at ELLE.com. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, Glamour, Marie Claire and more. Her first book, The Lonely Hunter, will be released by Dial Press in February 2022.