Dolly Parton’s Mother Said Keeping the Kids 'Sad Enough' Was a Vital Part of Raising Them

Dolly Parton’s Mother Said Keeping the Kids 'Sad Enough' Was a Vital Part of Raising Them

12/18/2021

The Parton family is a large one. Dolly Parton is the fourth of 12 children who lived in the family’s two-room Tennessee home. With so many young children to raise, Parton’s mother, Avie Lee Owens, had to get creative with ways to keep them in line. One of these was slightly surprising: she felt she had to keep the kids “sad enough” to be good. Here’s how she did this.

Dolly Parton grew up in a large family

Growing up, Parton and her siblings had to rely on one another. Their father, Lee Parton, was busy working the land, and their mother felt exhausted and focused on the youngest child. This meant that the older siblings had to care for the younger ones.

“There were so many of us that we, each older one, had to take care of the others,” Parton said on Hallmark Home & Family. “Mom was just having one baby. There was only 18 months to two years difference in our ages. So as the kids started multiplying, mom would say, ‘Well, this one’s going to be your baby.’”

Tragically, the child who Parton was going to help raise died. She said that the loss crushed both her and her mother.

Her mother worked to keep the kids ‘sad enough’

As raising 12 children put a lot of work on Owens’ plate, she tried different tactics to keep them on their best behavior.

“Mother controlled us with religion, fear, and love,” Parton’s sister Willadeene said, per the book Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton by Stephen Miller. “When none of these worked, she told papa on us.”

Lee Parton disciplined his children with whippings. Though Parton said he sometimes hit them “a bit too hard,” she joked that she probably should have been whipped more often. Because telling Lee Parton about any misbehavior was the final step, Owens first tried different methods to keep the children in line. One of these included singing to them, not to lull them but to make them upset.

“When you’ve got 12 kids you’ve got to do something to keep them out of meanness,” Owens explained. “I’d sing till they’d cry. If I kept them sad enough, they’d quit fighting.”

Dolly Parton said her mother was one of her first musical influences

Though some of the songs made her cry, Parton said that her mother was one of her earliest musical influences. 

“I grew up in a very musical family, especially on my mother’s side,” Parton wrote in her book Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “So it was just natural for my mom to always be singing. My mother had that old-timey voice, and she used to sing all these songs that were brought over from the Old World. They were English, Irish, Welsh, folk songs where people tell stories.”

When Parton sings, she wants listeners to feel Owens’ influence.

“I want you to feel it when I’m telling you the story,” she said. “Mama singing all those old-timey mountain songs was just embedded in my soul, in my psyche. I call it my ‘Smoky Mountain DNA.’”

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