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A Conversation with .. Stella Parton: East Tennesse Proud
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A Conversation with .. Stella Parton: East Tennesse Proud

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SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Siblings of music superstars typically do not encounter golden ladders to the top as a result.

Just ask Waylon Jennings’ brother Tommy. Or Johnny Cash’s brother Tommy. Or Tanya Tucker’s sister La Costa.

Oh, Stella Parton knows. A younger sister of Dolly Parton, her career in music did not come courtesy a leg up from her “Coat of Many Colors” sister.

“It has always been a struggle and a blessing,” said Stella Parton of her career. “I never saw myself as a star and don’t aspire to that.”

Regardless, the Sevierville native celebrates 45 years as a music profes-sional this year with a countrywide tour. More accurately, she’s performed as a professional musician for 47 years and the year marks the 50th anniversary of the first album to feature her voice.

“I’ve always seen myself as a working artist,” Parton said. “I’m not a star. I didn’t want to be a star.”

Nonetheless, a smattering of appearances on Billboard magazine’s country singles chart occupy the first decade of her career. She debuted on Billboard on May 24, 1975 with “I Want to Hold You In My Dreams Tonight.”

“There was something magical about my voice on that,” Parton said.

Partons do not give in easily. First, there’s pride.

“That comes from our dad,” she said. “He was one of the most soft-spoken people. He had 12 kids with our mother. My dad was an awesome human being.”

Then came vision.

“We got our dreams from our mother,” Parton said. “We got the work ethic from our dad. It was a perfect combination. My mother said you’ve got to put legs to your prayers.”

So along came 1967, Stella Parton’s 18th year. Sister Dolly charted her first country single in January with “Dumb Blonde” on Fred Foster’s influen-tial Monument Records.

Stella traveled to Nashville with sisters Willadeene and Cassie and their mother, Avie Lee Parton.

“The Parton Family, that’s what we were called,” Parton said.

They recorded a gospel album, “In the Garden.” Issued in 1967 on the tiny independent Inspiration Records imprint, scarce copies of the album exist to-day.

“This lady, Marion R. Mangrum, who owned a newspaper in Maryville, Tennes-see, heard us sing at a funeral,” Parton said. “She said she wanted to do an album for us.”

Parton turned to Inspiration Records again for her second album. Under the banner Stella and the Gospel Carrolls, a group that included her brother Randy and cousins Dwight and Dale Puckett, the album failed to launch as a hit in 1972.

By then, Dolly’s list of successes mounted with duet partner Porter Wagoner. A television star as a member of the cast of “The Porter Wagoner Show,” she scored her first number one single as a solo act with “Joshua” in 1971.

“To be honest, my uncle Louis and Porter Wagoner tried to shove me out of the business,” Stella Parton said. “I was trying to make a living. I was born a Parton.”

Fans may ask, “Why didn’t she ask Dolly for a chance to sign with her la-bel, RCA Records, or for help in signing with another record company?” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Not so.

“Well, I always tried to never be a burden on her,” Parton said. “I’ve never been on her coattails. I love her too much to do that.”

So Parton continued upon her route as an independent artist. She formed her own record label, Soul, Country and Blues Records.

“Or SCAB Records,” she said. “What inspired me was necessity. I had to have a hit before I could get a record deal.”

Like a bear with claws, Parton dug in and climbed a nearly insurmountable mountain. Independent artists rarely notched hits in those days.

Well, shazam! When her single, “I Want to Hold You In My Dreams Tonight,” peaked at number nine, she had her hit.

“I knew it was God’s will. It was a miracle,” Parton said. “I prayed to God that if this doesn’t work, I’ll go back to work in the beauty shop in Se-vierville. That’s what I was told to do, to go back with my son where I be-long.”

Hit made, Parton signed with Elektra Records in 1976. Three albums followed, including 1977’s “Country Sweet” and 1978’s “Stella Parton,” which peaked at numbers 27 and 38 respectively on Billboard’s country albums chart.

Not easy. Parton’s career illustrates well that siblings of superstars rare-ly have an easy way up.

“No, it’s not easy,” she said. “People judge you harshly. For me, I just go out and do my job. I started out as an indie artist. My first hit was on a label I started. I wrote it. I produced it. We grew up so poor. I’ve got that proud Parton mentality.”

Unfair comparisons to her famous older sister plagued her then as now. Stel-la’s not Dolly. Her voice bears strains of a resemblance. They definitely look like sisters. However, each own distinct personalities and styles.

“She’s three-and-a-half years older than me,” Parton said. “Dolly’s more of an extrovert than me. She’s more bubbly as a personality. But that’s not who I am.”

Regardless, 31 albums occupy Stella Parton’s discography. She’s currently in the midst of recording a new LP.

Film and stage work coincide with Parton’s career in music. For instance, she performed in a variety of Broadway touring musicals including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Pump Boys & Dinettes.”

Of late, Parton appeared as Corla Bass in NBC television’s “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors” in 2015 and “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” last year.

“Dolly called me out of the blue,” Parton said. “She said, ‘Your agent pitched you. We’re doing a movie, ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ for NBC. We have one part left — but you can’t be pretty!’ I said, ‘I don’t have to be pretty, but will be glad to do it.’ I think it was a God thing.”

Amid such highs came a wave of lows back home in East Tennessee. Last fall’s fires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge ravaged homes, businesses and forest alike. Her family survived, but the fires struck close.

“I lost a dear friend, Reverend Ed Taylor, who passed away in that fire,” Parton said. “I was devastated by the fires. It was a sign of how fast our lives can change.”

A no regrets mentality strides hand in hand with Parton. Steadfast in her convictions as an independent voice of God, a proud representative of her fam-ily and maker of music, Parton’s path through life continues on the strength of backbone and pure mountain grit.

Stella Parton is East Tennessee proud.

“I believe in my music,” Parton said. “God believes in me. I think that’s enough. I’ve had a long struggle, a hard struggle. I’m an angel with a broken wing, but I can still fly. I can still fly."

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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