Born the fourth of twelve children, she started her entertainment career singing on local radio and television in eastern Tennessee. She moved to Nashville in 1964, and in 1967 was invited to join the weekly syndicated country music television program hosted by Porter Wagoner, with whom she became half of a highly successful duet team. She brought into the Nashville Sound many traditional, folkloric elements present both in East Tennessee and popular music. Despite being typecast in many circles as a "Country and Western" singer, Parton has had commercial success as a pop singer and actress. Her work of the late 1990s and beyond has moved towards bluegrass and more traditional folk styles.
Parton is also a shrewd business woman. She has invested much of her earnings into business ventures in eastern Tennessee, notably Pigeon Forge which includes a theme park named Dollywood, resulting in a thriving tourism industry drawing people from large parts of the southeastern and midwestern US, notably, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. This region of the US, as most other areas of Appalachia, have traditionally been characterized by economic poverty.
In addition to her entertainment résumé, Parton is also noted for her large breasts. She often mocks this reputation, with quips such as "I would have burned my bra in the '60s, but it would have taken the fire department three days to put it out." She reportedly turned down several offers in the past to pose for Playboy magazine and other similiar publications, and to date there are no known photographs of her posing topless or nude.
Parton is a hugely successful songwriter, having penned the single "I Will Always Love You" which - as performed by Whitney Houston on The Bodyguard (1992) soundtrack - became the best-selling hit written and performed by a female vocalist, with worldwide sales of 12 million. Parton also earned an Academy Award nomination in 1981 for Best Original Song for the title track to the film Nine to Five.
After being dropped by country radio stations' playlists in the mid-1990s she re-discovered her roots by recording a series of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums including Grammy Award-winning Little Sparrow (2001).
On April 14, 2004, she was awarded Living Legend medal by U.S. Library of Congress, in honor of her contributions to the cultural heritage of the United States.