Dolly Parton’s husband Carl Thomas Dean is a bit of a mystery. While she is a global superstar who has amassed dozens of hit songs and a business empire, he is rarely seen in public. But they’ve made that work for over 50 years. Parton spends a good bit of time of her A&E biography talking about her relationship with Dean, so here’s what we know about the elusive partner to one of country music’s biggest stars.
1. Dolly and Carl Met The Day She Moved to Nashville
On the very first day Parton arrived in Nashville, when she had just graduated from high school and was 18 years old, she met Dean outside a local laundromat. He stopped to tell her she was going to get sunburned, they just kept chatting and the rest is history.
“I went to the laundromat, first time I’d ever been in the laundromat. Took my little dirty clothes I’d brought from home. It was called the Wishy-Washy washateria. I met my husband that first day and I’ve always joked about that, that it’s been wishy-washy ever since,” says Parton in her biography.
Dean was working as an asphalt contractor when they met. On their 50th wedding anniversary, he said in a statement, “My first thought was, ‘I’m gonna marry that girl.’ My second thought was, ‘Lord she’s good lookin’. And that was the day my life began. I wouldn’t trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth.”
2. They Got Married in Secret
Two years after they met, once Dean was out of the Army, the two of them ran off to Georgia to secretly get married against her record label’s wishes. Her music producers thought it would look better if she were single, but she and Dean were ready to tie the knot, so they did it in secret with just Parton’s mom and the preacher’s wife as their witnesses, according to her 1995 memoir.
On the A&E biography, Parton’s biographer Lydia Hamessley says that first of all, no one tells Dolly Parton what to do, and secondly, she wanted to prove that she could be a successful singer and also be married.
“Dolly was not looking for a husband when she came to Nashville. She was looking for a career. Her producers also did not want her to get married and she went ahead and did it anyway because when Dolly wants to do something, I think she does it,” says Hamessley. “She kept the marriage a secret for a year, but I think that was very clever because she demonstrated to her producers that she could have a marriage and still be successful.”
3. Many People in Parton’s Life Have Never Met Dean
According to Parton’s memoir, Dean accompanied her to one industry event in 1966 and then on the way home, he 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!”
True to her word, Dean very rarely appears with her in public. In fact, several of her Nashville session musicians say in the biography that they’ve never even seen him — or know anyone who has, besides Parton, of course.
“I’ve never seen Carl Dean, nor ever met him. I know he exists, but I don’t know anybody that’s ever seen Carl Dean,” says Lloyd Green. Wayne Moss adds, “I’ve never met the man, so I don’t know anything about him.”
But Dean is always supportive at home. Parton told People in 2019 that he’s her “biggest fan behind the scenes,” even if his musical taste runs more toward hard rock than country.
“He’s always supporting me as long as I don’t try to drag him in on it. He’s always been my biggest fan behind the scenes … I’d rather bring somebody else with me, you know? He’s never jealous of that either,” said Parton.
4. But Jane Fonda Has Met Him
Parton and Fonda were co-stars in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 and have been good friends ever since. One time Fonda went to visit Parton’s Tennessee home in the Smoky Mountains and she actually met Dean, whom she says was quite funny in describing the day he met Dolly.
“Carl is very handsome. I spent the night at their home in Nashville and Carl cooked us breakfast, very delicious breakfast. First time I had fried green tomatoes,” says Fonda. “And I remember sitting at the breakfast table and I said, ‘Describe the first time that you saw Dolly.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was driving my truck and I drove past a 7-Eleven and I saw her, she was drinking an RC Cola’ and he was trying to articulate with his hands and his language [how beautiful and voluptuous she was] and he got so worked up that he fell backwards in his chair.”
Fonda also says that Parton has her own brand of feminism and Hamessley says that a big part of the way Parton and Dean arranged their marriage back in the 1960s.
“One way that we see Dolly’s feminism is in her marriage because she arranged that so it was understood that she was not going to stay home and cook and clean. She had a plan for a career and she made it very clear from the outset that that was her plan,” says Hamessley.
5. Parton Has Admitted to Having an ‘Affair of the Heart’
There have been rumors over the years of Parton having affairs — with co-star Burt Reynolds, with her personal assistant Judy Ogle, with her collaborator Kenny Rogers. But Parton denies being romantically involved with any of them. She has, however, admitted to having an “affair of the heart,” which led her to contemplate suicide.
In her 2017 book Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters With Dolly Parton, Parton recalls being in a very low place in the early 1980s. She was having health problems, she had had a bad experience filming The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and she had a “broken heart” from having an affair outside of her marriage, though she later clarifies it was an “affair of the heart.” But she talks in the book about staring for a long time at a gun she kept in her nightstand for burglars. Parton says she was interrupted by her little dog, Popeye, whom she now believes was a messenger from God who stopped him from perhaps doing something tragic.
There has been speculation that Parton was referring to her bandleader at the time, Gregg Perry, who quit the music business after recording the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack, according to the Daily Mail.
But regardless of who it was, Parton has said many times that she and Dean have been faithful to each other. They renewed their vows in 2016 to mark their 50th wedding anniversary.
The Dolly Parton A&E biography airs Sunday, April 12 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., followed by Willie Nelson: American Outlander, a special concert that pays tribute to Nelson’s seven-decades-long career.