Dolly Parton wasn't looking for love when she moved to Nashville in 1964 hoping to make it as a country star. But that's exactly what she stumbled across outside the Wishy-Washy laundromat on her very first day in town. Husband Carl Dean, then 21, caught an 18-year-old Dolly's attention with a quip about sunburn and her revealing outfit.
“My first thought was I’m going to marry that girl,” Carl once said. “My second was, ‘Lord she’s good lookin.' And that was the day my life began.” For Dolly, she'd left two boyfriends behind back home in the Smoky Mountains and wasn't looking for a new one - but Carl was too good to resist. "So the first thing I do, the first day in Nashville, I meet Carl. I fell for him, and he fell for me," Dolly, 74, wrote in her new book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.
Over the years there has been much speculation about their marriage, with naysayers claiming the rarely-seen Carl isn't real. But in her most candid reveal yet about her 54-year union, Dolly has given fans a rare insight into their powerful love - from their forbidden marriage to their very normal private life. Things moved quickly for the pair after that first meeting. But when Fred Foster at Combine Music wanted to invest in Dolly as an artist, he strictly forbade her from getting hitched.
Not that the head-strong icon listened. She and Carl sneaked off to Ringgold, Georgia, where they tied the knot that very weekend with only her mother as a witness. At first, Carl stayed by Dolly's side in the spotlight, but one award's ceremony was enough to convince him that the music scene wasn't for him. And as soon as they left the BMI Awards banquet to celebrate Dolly winning the award for Put It Off Until Tomorrow, Carl made it clear that while he fully supported Dolly, he would never step out at a public event again.
Dolly explained: "He dressed up, wore a tuxedo, and went with me. After it was over, he started ripping stuff off before we even got to the car. "He said, 'I'm happy for you. I want you to do what you want to do. But don't ever ask me to go to another one of them damn things, because I ain't going.' And he never has." But his reticence to be seen has done nothing to dent their marriage - Dolly goes out to work then returns to a normal, 'simple' life with her beloved husband, who she affectionately describes as a 'loner'.
"You know, he don't want to be around anybody but me anyway and he loves to be home," she said. "So that worked out fine." Throughout her long career, Dolly has penned many a song in honour of her man, famously writing Jolene about a cashier at Carl's bank who had taken a shine to him. Her 1976 track The Last One To Touch Me is an ode to their intense love which she hopes will transcend this lifetime. I can't even sing that song without crying because I think about my husband," she said.
Their connection is so strong that Dolly has always thought that 'God speaks' to her through Carl. "I'll have something on my mind, and Carl will say something that answers it without even knowing what I was thinking. It's amazing," she explained. Not only does he not get jealous, but Dolly said he is 'a good man' to her and everyone around him and sweetly describes him as the 'highlight of my life'.
Away from the public on their ranch in Nashville, the couple live an extremely ordinary live, heading out in their campervan for picnics and fishing - as long as Carl baits her tackle. They eat at drive-thrus, never argue but do fall victim to the occasional 'sulk'. They have never called each other by their first names, feeling it's 'so impersonal'. Instead, they use pet names, with Carl calling Dolly 'Kid' while she calls him 'Dad'.
When their 50th anniversary came around, the love birds marked it by getting remarried, with Dolly dazzling in a 'fancy gown' with a veil. And when it comes to the key to their longevity, Dolly believes it's down to the fact they're the best of friends. She writes: "We have a great sense of humour. We are as funny as can be. You would roll on the floor if you saw us together. We just do these routines all the time, without even realizing that we're doing them. We're both very witty and very quick. So sometimes we just laugh so hard. I don't choke him to death, saying do this or don't do that. We love our freedom. We have a lot of things in common... being great friends is the secret of happiness."