Avie Lee Parton, Dolly’s mother, is often credited as Dolly’s first musical influence
Avie Lee Owens Parton was born on Oct. 5, 1923, in Lockhart, a small cotton farming community in South Carolina. As a preacher’s daughter, she learned to make the best of what she had, a skill that would come in handy in her life as a wife and mother.
She married Lee Parton in 1939, and in the years that followed, the couple raised 12 children, six boys and six girls. In order of birth, they are: Willadeene, David Wilburn, Coy Denver, Dolly Rebecca, Bobby Lee, Stella Mae, Cassie Nan, Randel Huston “Randy,” Larry Gerald, Estel Floyd and Freida Estelle (twins) and Rachel Ann.
Standing (left to right): Randy, David, Willadeene, Rachel, Dolly, Avie Lee, Robert Lee
Seated (left to right): Cassie, Stella, Denver, Frieda, Floyd, Bobby
As a wife and mother, she supported her family in everything she did, from canning food to caring for their medical needs. She had a way of knowing when one of her children needed a little extra attention, and she had creative ways of making them feel special. She would often announce they were having Stone Soup for supper and would send all the children out to find the perfect stone. When they returned with their treasured stones in hand, Avie Lee examined each one and commented on its merits. She would then choose one very special stone; the one brought back by the child who needed a little extra love on that day. She tended to her family’s every need while bringing faith and happiness to her home.
Mrs. Avie Lee would have turned 92 today. Although she passed away in 2003 at the age of 80, her love was immortalized in the words of Dolly’s song, “Coat of Many Colors.” It tells the story of Avie Lee sewing her young daughter a winter coat out of small scraps of fabric when the family could afford little else. However, her gift was more than just the coat. She taught Dolly an important lesson in seeing the value of what you have no matter how little it may seem to be. This lesson would become Dolly’s life philosophy. “Coat of Many Colors” may be the most famous story of Avie Lee’s handmade gifts, however, it was not the first. In fact, the first song Dolly ever wrote was inspired by another of her mother’s gifts.
“Little Tiny Tasseltop” was composed by a young Dolly even before she could read or write. The song was inspired by a corncob doll, with corn silk hair, that Avie Lee handcrafted for little Dolly. As she played with her precious doll on the front porch, she began singing. Avie Lee quickly wrote down the lyrics to what would become Dolly’s very first song.
Audio of Dolly singing “Little Tiny Tasseltop.”
Listen via SoundCloud.
Little tiny tasseltop,
I love you an awful lot
Corn silk hair and big brown eyes
How you make me smile
Little tiny tasseltop
You’re the only friend I’ve got
Hope you never go away
I want you to stay
You’re my tiny tasseltop
You’re my favorite-est doll
Even if you’re just a cobb
I want you to stay
Even after Dolly began to achieve career success, Avie Lee’s outlook on life did not change much. In Dolly’s book, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” she recalls another story involving a coat.
“After the song had become a hit and had done so much for my career, I wanted to go back home and repay Mama for all the love she had sewn into my coat. I said, ‘Mama, let’s go to Knoxville. I’m going to buy you a mink coat.’ Mama is the type of person who is somewhat uncomfortable about somebody making her an offer like that. At first, she came back with a joke: ‘It’s bad enough we have to eat little varmints…I don’t want to have to start wearing them…’ Then she took on a more serious tone as she said, ‘Shoot! Where would I wear a mink coat…to a pie supper? Give me the money instead.’ So I did.”
Avie Lee poured her heart and soul into raising her children. Her legacy is a profound testament of a mother’s love…a legacy that will live on for generations, far beyond the hills and valleys of Locust Ridge, Tennessee.
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