Pop culture icon Dolly Parton and her husband Carl Dean are in one of the longest-running relationships in any facet of entertainment, much less country music. The couple celebrated 57 years of marriage on May 30, 2023. What's their key to longevity? Parton says that Dean loves her just the way she is and that's a solid foundation for any successful relationship.
"We've been together most of our lives," Parton told People. "I always joke and laugh when people ask me what's the key to my long marriage and lasting love. I always say 'Stay gone!' and there's a lot of truth to that. I travel a lot, but we really enjoy each other when we're together and the little things we do."
Dean's one of the great pop culture mysteries because he avoids the spotlight.
"He just don't have any desire to be in show business," Parton told Playboy in Oct. 1978. "He don't want to have his picture in the paper. He don't want to go out to the supermarket and have people say, 'That's Dolly Parton's husband.'"
Through it all, Parton has painted pictures of a supportive spouse and a happy marriage.
"Sometimes we'll get a little touchy if we're tired or aggravated," she told Playgirl in 1981 (as quoted by US Weekly). "We never put ourselves in a situation where we bicker back and forth."
Still, Parton has spoken about him enough over the years to piece together a timeline of their long-lasting relationship.
1964: Dolly Parton Meets Carl Dean
The country star met Carl Thomas Dean when she was 18 at the Wishy-Washy laundromat in Nashville, Tenn.. Per most accounts, it was the day she moved to town. The year was 1964, and it was love at first sight. During their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016, Dean told Entertainment Tonight that his first thought after seeing Parton for the first time was that he wanted to marry her.
"My second thought was, 'Lord she's good lookin.' And that was the day my life began," he said. "I wouldn't trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth."
The two had a sweet courtship after that first day that was extremely low-key, while Parton's music career was on the rise. To this day, the couple prefers to take date nights at their favorite local spots instead of any fancy establishments that would lead to getting recognized.
"When I met my husband, he wanted to take me out to dinner. He pulled up to the drive-in window and got our food at McDonald's," she told People. "We know a few little places we can go without being bothered. He only likes to go places where he can be comfortable!"
1966: Parton Marries Dean
Two years later, they were married, despite protests from her record label that it would affect her music career. The "Jolene" singer was ready, and that's all that mattered. Her mother, Avie Lee Parton, made a little white dress, and in front of just her mother and pastor, Don Duvall, and his wife, the couple said 'I do' in a little Baptist church in the Northwest Georgia town of Ringgold.
In Stephen Miller's book Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton, Parton revealed that Dean's proposal was both simple and practical.
"He said, 'You're going to have to move closer into town or we're going to have to get married,' " she said.
That same year, the couple attended an industry event for Parton's first big record, and it remains only time Dean went out in the spotlight. He's since stayed out of the music biz but was incredibly happy for Parton and her success.
"Carl has never been in the limelight and all, never wanted to be in it. He don't like it. He went to one thing with me early on when we first married to a BMI Song of the Year [event]," Parton told InStyle in 2023. "He came out there taking off his tuxedo, his tie and all that and said, 'Don't ever ask me to go to another one of these damn things because I ain't going.' I never asked him and he never did."
1969: A Rare Image of Dean
Dean is so private that photos of him from any decade are scarce. Though you can see him on the cover of Parton's 1969 album My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.
1973: Dean Inspires "Jolene"
One of Parton's most iconic songs, "Jolene" was inspired by a real-life bank teller that the singer feared had taken a liking to Dean.
"She got this terrible crush on my husband," Parton told NPR. "It was kind of 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.'"
Parton felt at the time that the real Jolene had things she didn't "like legs—you know, she was about 6 feet tall. And had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have."
Over the years, "Jolene" inspired answer songs, from Cam's "Diane" (2017) to Chapel Hart's "You Can Have Him Jolene" (2021). An episode of Parton's 2019 Netflix series Heartstrings titled "Jolene" was based on the song.
1979: A Reporter Describes Dean
A reporter for Cosmopolitan caught a glimpse of Dean while spending time with Parton for a Jan. 1979 feature and wrote one of the more vivid descriptions of him to date.
Tall and good-looking, rather like a young Gregory Peck, he has a way of moving his angular body so that he seems to come toward you in sections," the article read (as quoted by US Weekly). "He is a fan of television and nightclub comic Steve Martin."
2002: Parton Covers One of Dean's Favorite Songs, Despite His Hesitance
Parton recorded a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" for her Halos & Horns album because it's among Dean's favorite songs. At first, he wasn't so sure that it was a good idea.
"I did a version of 'Stairway to Heaven' some years back as a bluegrass kind of thing, and he didn't think I should have done it," Parton told "Absolute Radio Breakfast." "He said, are you sure that's 'Stairway to Heaven' or 'Stairwell to Hell'? He said 'I don't think you should do that,' and I said 'why?' and he said, 'Because it's a legend. It's a classic.'"
Parton's initial take on Led Zeppelin's classic rock radio staple appeared on her 2002 bluegrass album. She added that eventually, Dean conceded that it was "okay."
For Rockstar (out Nov. 17), Parton cut the song again with special guests Lizzo and Sasha Flute. Per Parton, Dean liked this one on the first listen because it "stayed true" to the Zeppelin original.
2012: Dean Inspires a Romantic Song for a Movie
In an interview with The Boot, Parton explained that "From Here to the Moon and Back," a song she wrote for the 2012 film Joyful Noise, was inspired by her marriage.
"It was about my husband in the movie, played by Kris Kristofferson," Parton said. "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."
2016: Parton Records Two Special Love Songs
For her album Pure & Simple, Parton compiled some of her favorite love songs. Two of them, ""Say Forever You'll Be Mine" and "Tomorrow Is Forever," were written by her early in the couple's marriage.
2016: 50 Years of Matrimony
For their 50th Anniversary, Dolly had the fancy wedding she never had when they were young, and they renewed their vows in a small ceremony at their home in Tennessee.
"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," Parton told Rolling Stone. "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."
Though the couple never had children of their own, Parton is godmother to former Disney star and active singer-songwriter Miley Cyrus.
"Early on, 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,"
Per Closer Weekly, Parton was told in 1984 that she'd never be able to have children following a partial hysterectomy.
Parton sees the time freed up for her career by not having children as a blessing.
"I would have been a great mother, I think. I would probably have given up everything else," she told the Guardian in 2014. "Because I would've felt guilty about that, if I'd have left them [to work, to tour]. Everything would have changed. I probably wouldn't have been a star."
2021: Parton Re-Dons Her Playboy Cover Outfit For Dean's Birthday
In 2021, Parton celebrated Dean's birthday by re-donning her iconic Playboy cover outfit for him.
"My husband always loved the original cover of Playboy, so I was trying to think of something to do to make him happy," she shared on Instagram. "He still thinks I'm a hot chick after 57 years — and I'm not going to try to talk him out of that."
2023: A 'Rockstar' Muse
Parton gave back to rock 'n' roll after being inducted into its hall of fame with Rockstar, an album filled with such special guests as Stevie Nicks, Sting and the two surviving Beatles. She's credited Dean for inspiring the project, which includes some of his favorite classic rock staples.
"I'm doing the rock 'n' roll album because of [Dean]" Parton told People. "I had often thought about doing a rock 'n' roll album for him with his favorite songs. And so when this all came about, I decided that I am going to go ahead and do it... It was just the perfect storm. Okay, it's time."
This article was originally published in 2019. It was updated on Nov. 16, 2023.
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.