Few country music artists have achieved the level of massive mainstream success as Dolly Parton. Her songs have topped both the country and pop charts, she’s established herself as bona fide movie star with box-office hits such as 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias, and she continues to remain an entertainment force to be reckoned with — at an age when most people are well into their retirement years.
Through it all, she’s had husband Carl Dean behind her… way behind her. In fact, Parton’s media-shy significant other has kept such a low profile that few photos of him exist, preferring to remain at the couple’s Tennessee home while his famous wife galavants around the world. Yet this arguably unorthodox marriage has been undeniably successful. Having celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary in 2020, the wisecracking, outspoken country superstar and her reclusive other half continue to prove that opposites really do attract — and that no matter how unusual their marriage may seem from the outside, they’re clearly doing something right.
How much do Parton’s fans really know about the mystery man who’s been her life partner for more than five decades? Keep on reading and discover the fascinating untold truth of Dolly Parton’s husband.
The sweet way Dolly Parton met husband Carl Dean
Dolly Parton had just graduated high school when she packed up her belongings in a cardboard suitcase and travelled to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. According to a 1976 profile in The New York Times, soon after hitting town she ventured to a laundromat, tossed in her dirty clothes, and went for a walk when "this guy hollered at me, and I waved." As Parton explained on her website, "I was surprised and delighted that while he talked to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me). He seemed to be genuinely interested in finding out who I was and what I was about."
That guy was Carl Dean, and the two immediately clicked. In fact, she told the Times, at the first opportunity "he drove me straight to his folks’ house and introduced me to his mother and daddy. ‘Cause he said he knew right the minute he saw me that that’s the one he wanted."
It wasn’t long after that she and Dean "took up with each other," and were wed on May 30, 1966. "I hadn’t intended to marry … but you know how love goes," she said.
The reason Dolly Parton and Carl Dean eloped
When Dolly Parton and Carl Dean got hitched, the original plan was for a big, family-filled ceremony. Dean’s mother, Parton told CMT, "was so excited that she was finally gonna get to do a wedding," given that her only daughter had eloped. "So she was so happy she would get to throw a big wedding party." However, Parton’s burgeoning career cratered those plans when her record label, preferring she remained unmarried, asked her to delay the wedding for a year. Dean’s mother, she admitted, "was heartbroken."
Ever the rebel, Parton went through with it anyhow. "We’d already sent out invitations and so I thought, ‘I ain’t waiting!’" she told People.
However, the wedding was no grand affair. "It was just my mother and Carl and me," she told CMT, explaining they crossed the Tennessee state line to Ringgold, Georgia, in order to keep the wedding out of the Tennessee newspapers. There was, however, one dealbreaker: she insisted on a church wedding. "I said, ‘I can’t get married in a courthouse because I’ll never feel married.’ So we found a little Baptist church in town… We got pictures on the steps right outside the church."
The secret behind Dolly Parton’s decades-long marriage
It’s long been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Dolly Parton firmly believes that old axiom holds the key to the longevity of her marriage. In a 2018 video interview with American Idol alum Gabby Barrett for Amazon Music, Parton shared the surprising reason why she thinks her marriage has lasted as long as it has.
"My husband and I always had a great friendship," Parton explained. "We’re both funny, and we both have a great and warped sense of humor so we’ve always had a good time." She went on to call Carl Dean "a loner and a homebody," whereas she’s a gregarious public figure who has spent decades of her life on the road. And those differences work just fine for the pair. "We don’t do the same thing so it gives us different stuff to talk about," she said.
Parton continued, explaining she’s always joked that "the reason our marriage has lasted so long is because I stay gone. Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. We’re not like in each other’s face all the time. So I think there’s a lot to be said about having some sensible separation because you can’t be with somebody 24/7, 365 and not want to smack their face now and then."
Dolly Parton and Carl Dean have never argued
Dolly Parton and husband Carl Dean are far from a typical couple, yet in the aforementioned 2018 interview with Gabby Barrett, Parton shared a fact about her marriage that is sure to shock most spouses. "My husband and I have never fought," she insisted. "We’ve never bickered back and forth because I never wanted us to say bad things that we would have to remember."
However, she admitted that she and Dean have come close to getting into it — but have figured out a way to prevent disagreements from escalating. "We get a little pissy now and then, but we’ll just kind of walk off or go do something else and kind of let that die down," Parton explained. "You have to work at anything. Marriage is a business too, and you kinda got to look at it like that. You got to make the right decisions for all the little things that come up."
Her philosophy, she explained, is to simply "go to the other room rather than getting in a big old argument about it, cool off and know they’re just as entitled to their opinion and their space as you are yours."
Dolly Parton’s husband isn’t in show business
As Dolly Parton has made clear, she and husband Carl Dean live very different lives during the frequent stretches when they’re apart. "They say that opposites attract, and it’s true," she told People in 2015. "We’re completely opposite, but that’s what makes it fun. I never know what he’s gonna say or do. He’s always surprising me."
That holds true not just for their personalities, but for their vocations. Parton’s career in show business includes performing onstage, acting in movies, launching a record label, and posing on red carpets; Dean ran an asphalt paving company for years, as People noted in a 1977 profile. Per the Daily Mail, he is now retired.
That same People article also reported, at the time, that the couple were living in a 23-room house situated on 200 acres, with the property also including "a mobile home for her folks when they visit, 25 polled Herefords, two peacocks, two hounds and Dolly’s 17-year-old kid sister, Rachel." And while the feature doesn’t mention it specifically, it would be easy to assume that the driveway and other paved surfaces are top-notch.
Red carpets and Dolly Parton’s husband don’t mix
Dolly Parton’s husband, Carl Dean, has chosen to stay out of the limelight, and the "My Tennessee Mountain Home" singer has respected that decision. However, during a 2011 performance at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, Parton told the audience about the one and only time that he accompanied her to a red carpet event.
As The Boot reported, Parton explained that the occasion was a BMI dinner in 1966, the same year they were married, where she received her first songwriting award. "So Carl and I got dressed up, he was in a tux, and we drove to the dinner," Parton recalled. "We got out and walked up the red carpet and went inside and sat through dinner and the awards, and I went up and got my award."
At the end of the evening as they were driving home, she added, "Carl turned to me and said, ‘Dolly, I want you to have everything you want, and I’m happy for you, but don’t you ever ask me to go to another one of them dang things again!’" Clearly, she has taken him up on his request.
Dolly Parton’s husband isn’t really a fan of her music
Despite her enduring marriage to Carl Dean, Dolly Parton admits that her husband isn’t particularly enamored of her songs. "He’s not necessarily one of my biggest fans of my music," Parton revealed in a 2019 interview with Good Morning Britain. "He likes hard rock, he likes Led Zeppelin and bluegrass music, so my music is somewhere in between. I mean, he doesn’t dislike it, but he doesn’t go out of his way to play my records, let’s put it that way," she added, admitting "it’s a touchy subject."
While that might lead some artists to gingerly nurse their bruised egos, Parton takes it in stride. In fact, she prefers to focus on the positive aspects of their relationship. "He’s proud of me," she said. "And he loves that I love what I do."
In a 2011 appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, Parton admitted she doesn’t "bother him too much with my writing. Every now and then I’ll say, if I just finished an album, I’ll just say, ‘Sit your a** down, you gotta listen to this.’ And he will, if I say that."
Dolly Parton and Carl Dean assumed they’d have children
Back in 1977, Dolly Parton — then 31 — spoke with People about whether or not she and husband Carl Dean would start a family. "I don’t know that I won’t have children someday," she said, but had come to realize that the demands of her line of work didn’t make it easy. She admitted that "it’s just not possible for me to bear children and leave them for somebody else to raise while I have a career. If I wait until I’m naturally too old to have children, I can always adopt them."
In the early 1980s, Parton underwent a partial hysterectomy after being diagnosed with endometriosis. "It was an awful time for me when I realised there would be no babies," she recalled to the Evening Standard in 2007. A few years later, she told Billboard that when she and her husband first got married, "we just assumed we would have kids. We weren’t doing anything to stop it. In fact, we thought maybe we would."
Parton also revealed that she and her husband went so far as to pick out names for the children they might have one day. However, as she wistfully noted, "it didn’t turn out that way." She shared that she used to believe she "should regret" not having kids, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. "Now I say, ‘God didn’t mean for me to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine,’" Parton said.
Carl Dean hasn’t been to many Dolly Parton concerts
Dolly Parton dropped by The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2011, where she was asked if husband Carl Dean ever travels with her when she goes on tour. "No, he doesn’t like to do that," Parton confessed, and explained the sweet reason why. "He gets nervous seeing me perform," she added. "It’s almost like seeing your kid in a recital. He’s afraid I’ll mess up. Actually, he has seen me a time or two and it did relax him a little. He saw that I do mess up and it’s okay because people are not gonna punish me for it."
Speaking with Good Morning Britain in 2019, Parton noted that on the rare occasions when her hubby does watch her take to the stage, her performance is rarely the only attraction. "Usually, if I’m playing at state fairs, he loves to go to the fair, and go to the tractor pulls and go to the stockyards and do all that," she said.
After Dean has managed to get his fill of a fair, explained Parton, "sometimes he’ll ramble around and kind of hear me sing."
Fast-food is a Dolly Parton and Carl Dean date night staple
When Dolly Parton does return home to spend some quality time with husband Carl Dean, they like to keep things low-key. In a SiriusXM town hall with Andy Cohen, she described what the couple’s typical date night looks like. "Well, we do different things, like go to Taco Bell and drive through… Carl and I have a little camper, a little RV, and we’re always driving through fast-food restaurants to get our stuff, so that’s one of the things we do," said Parton.
"I’m always in the front seat. Sometimes [the employees] know me; sometimes they don’t," she added. "Sometimes I sign autographs on napkins and stuff, and I don’t mind any of that, but I really get mad if they mess up my order."
When it comes to their date nights, she explained, "we just do whatever feels happy and comfortable for us. It’s hard for me to get him to dress up to go out to a nice dinner because he’s just a country boy and hates that stuff… We just do whatever’s good, we have a good time."
Dolly Parton and Carl Dean renewed their vows
Given that Dolly Parton’s 1966 wedding to Carl Dean was a modest affair, the couple decided to do it up in style when they decided to renew their vows on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.
"We felt, well, we never got a chance to do our whole big wedding, and I missed having a wedding dress and all that," she said of plans to renew their vows while speaking at a press conference, recorded by Taste of Country. "I’m being fitted up for that and he’s looking for suits and we’re gonna take a bunch of pictures, and so I might even sell some to the rag mags," she said, before noting that she would give that money to the Imagination Library, the non-profit organization she started in 1995.
After the ceremony, held at the couple’s home, had taken place, Parton shared more details with Rolling Stone. "I got all dressed up in the most beautiful gown you’ve ever seen and dressed that husband of mine up," she said, gushing that Dean "looked like a handsome dude out of Hollywood." The whole thing was devised "cleverly and carefully," she explained. "We just had a simple little ceremony at our chapel at our place. We just had fun with it."
Dolly Parton said she’s ‘stuck’ with Carl Dean in quarantine
When the global pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Dolly Parton found herself becoming one of the many people throughout the world spending more time cooped up at home than ever before. For the country music superstar, this meant hunkering down and spending quality time with husband Carl Dean.
Given that Parton has long asserted that being apart for long stretches is what’s kept her marriage solid for more than 50 years, it’s natural to wonder how this forced togetherness was affecting the couple’s long-established equilibrium. In April 2020, Parton made a virtual appearance on Today, where she offered a humorous answer while sharing marital advice with Hoda Kotb, then in the midst of preparing for her own wedding. "I would say if you’re trapped in the house with him, you might want to be in separate rooms," Parton joked to Kotb and co-host Jenna Bush Hager. "The reason it worked for me is because I’ve stayed gone. I can’t get away now. I’m stuck there now. I might find out who he is."
As always, Parton ended on a punchline. "We may not make it until the next anniversary," she quipped.