Dolly Parton’s first paying gig as a musician, the one that kickstarted her career at just 10-years-old, was playing for the Cas WalkerFarm and Home Hour.
Without that opportunity, who knows if the legend from small-town East Tennessee would have ever gotten her “big break.”
According to Showbiz CheatSheet, by the time Parton was playing the gig, Walker had already become a prominent grocery store mogul. Although mogul might be too complicated of a word for the man nicknamed “The Old ‘Coon Hunter.”
“An old raccoon hunter who started selling groceries door-to-door with a wheelbarrow. A real character.”
Racoon hunting is deeply woven into the cultural lore of old time rural Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee’s mascot is a Blue Tick Coonhound, one of the most popular breeds for hunting the animals the dogs are named after.
In the later stages of his life, Walker managed his own dog breeding operation. At one point, he owned as many as 50 ‘coon hunting dogs. He was known for treating his dogs with an almost human like reverence. When one of his dogs died, it was respectfully buried in a special cemetery with a personalized headstone.
Walker was born and raised in Sevier County, Tennessee. The very same place where Dolly Parton was born and raised.
According to The Smokies, Walker left home at 14 to work for a paper mill in North Carolina before relocating to Kentucky to dig coal. Eventually he saved up enough money to move back home and buy a grocery store. Then he bought another. And another. And another. And another. Eventually he owned a chain of stores big enough to earn the title of mogul.
If not for Parton’s rightful claim to the crown, Walker would likely still be recognized as the most successful Sevier County native of all time.
Walker once attributed his success in life to the skills of self efficacy, determination, and discipline that he sharpened by running with his ‘coon hounds through the Great Smoky Mountains.
He was a natural born showman and an instinctively intuitive businessman known mostly for his over the top, outlandish, and hilarious marketing and advertising campaigns. For example, he was known on occasion to dump thousands of coupons out of airplanes flying over the towns where his stores were located.
His first store opened in 1924, with Walker promoting the event by throwing live chickens off the roof. The rules were, if you caught a chicken you could keep it for free. That’s just genius marketing.
Walker was also involved in politics for more than 20 years, eventually serving a brief stint as the Mayor of Knoxville. His political career was defined by being a friend of the little man and a champion of farmers and the working class.
He was apparently a real live wire his entire life though. He spoke his mind publicly and cared little about what anybody else thought about his opinions. In 1956, Life Magazine published a photo of him on the verge of landing a stiff right hook on a fellow Knoxville City Councilman while in the midst of a political debate.
That was the very same year that Walker offered Parton a gig playing on his radio show.
One of the first people to really understand the marketing value of radio, Walker purchased air time on area stations to start promoting his stores in 1929 by hosting the The Farm and Home Hour on which Parton premiered her talents. The radio show was broadcast for 54 consecutive years and provided big breaks for other acts, including the Everly Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Roy Acuff.
Walker also reportedly used the show to regularly tell his own hunting stories.
Eventually the radio show turned into a TV show that was on air for more than 20 years.
Parton’s uncle helped manage her early music career and he was reportedly a big fan of Cas Walker’s stores and radio show. It was he who lined up the audition for Dolly.
“Uncle Bill and I went down there, me with my little guitar and him with his big ol’ guitar.
It was 1956, and I was ten years old. My two big numbers at the time were ‘I Love a Tall Man’ by Rose Maddox and the George Jones song ‘You Gotta Be My Baby,’ which was a hit that year.”
Little Miss Dolly absolutely crushed the audition with her rendition of the George Jones song.
“They just applauded and applauded. I looked back at my uncle Bill, because I didn’t know what to do.
He said, ‘Just sing it again!’ So I sang it two or three times.”
Parton apparently won Walker over with the same charmingly respectful brazenness she’s been known for ever since. When the applause subsided, little Dolly walked right up to Walker and told him she wanted a job. Because of her bold determination and magical voice, Walker had no choice but to hire her.
Dolly had landed her first radio and television gig at the age of 10… Before her family could even afford to own a television.
A scratchy, old, barely audible recording of her first appearance on the show is still housed on her website.
She would go on to perform on the show for the next 8 years of her life. She made $5 cash every time she played, and she played often until she moved to Nashville after graduating high school to pursue the next chapter of her musical career.
She returned to the show once more a few years later to do an interview with Walker and to play the sassy hit song “Dumb Blonde” from her debut album “Hello, I’m Dolly.”
It’s believed to be Dolly Parton’s first ever appearance on colorized television.
While Parton’s stories about Walker are certainly entertaining, she’s not the only one who had tales to tell about the maverick who helped launch her career.
Walker died in 1998, but legend has it that every single person born in East Tennessee prior to the 1980’s has (or had) at least a few personal stories they could tell about Cas Walker. Legend also has it that some of the stories are even true.
Thanks to the opportunities he afforded her, Parton has held Walker in extremely high regard for the duration of her life. She even had a statue of him commissioned and put on display at Dollywood.