When Dolly Parton popped up as a guest star on an episode in the first season of Hannah Montana in 2006, many were shocked to see the country music legend on a tween show. But she had a little inside connection with the star of the show, Miley Cyrus.
“I've known her since she was a baby,” Parton told Good Morning America in 2009. “Her father's a friend of mine, and when she was born, he said, ‘You just have to be her godmother,’ and I said, ‘I accept.’ We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her and she's just like one of my own.”
While the “9 to 5” singer doesn't have children and said on GMA that she’s technically an “honorary godmother,” she has indeed treated the young singer-actress like a daughter, both showering her with compliments as well as keeping it real with her, even in public interviews over the years as Cyrus’ fame grew. And the bond between the two is so electric that they often turn to each other for powerful musical collaborations.
Parton played Cyrus' on-screen godmother
Their first professional project together was during Cyrus’ television days. On Hannah Montana, her title character had the best of both worlds as a regular student by day and pop star by night, but when her real-life godmother showed up on set, she definitely leaned toward the side of a regular teen.
“I was only 15, I had zit cream all over my face and my pajamas were on and we all had our backpacks going to school,” she recalled on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon of the table read day. “And she came in a pink silk robe, and her hair barely could fit through the doorway.”
Parton played Cyrus’ character’s Aunt Dolly on the show for three episodes from 2006 to 2010. While she called her “aunt,” she was actually her godmother like in real life, according to Parton’s site.
Cyrus loved having her role model around. “That’s one of those proud moments where when people started saying, ‘So you call her Aunt Dolly, is that your real aunt?’” and she said she’d reply, “Yes, she is!”
And Parton quickly saw just how adored her teenage goddaughter was by her young fans. “Little kids just see me in the street and just point, ‘Aunt Dolly!’ or ‘Hi, Aunt Dolly!’ — and it’s just been so cute,” she told Great American Country.
Parton thinks Cyrus is a 'fantastic singer and songwriter'
The mutual lovefest between the two went beyond the TV show too — and in fact it was the proud godmother who had the most confidence in the teen’s future from the start.
“The kids love her because she’s Hannah Montana, but what people don’t realize about her is she is such a fantastic singer and songwriter,” Parton told AOL Music back in 2008. “She writes songs like she’s 40 years old! She’s really deep.”
The bragging continued: “I think she’s gonna have a big career after that show is off the air. I know I’m partial, because she’s my goddaughter. But I’m amazed at the talent that child has and the effect she has on people.”
And in perhaps the biggest praise of all, she added, “That little Miley Cyrus… she’s like a little Elvis.”
The two joined forces for a duet of Parton’s hit “Jolene”
One of the most talked-about moments between the two was when Cyrus was 17 years old and showed her vocal chops in a duet with Parton of her 1973 hit “Jolene” for the 25th anniversary of Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, on July 3, 2010 — when she called herself Cyrus’ “fairy godmother.”
Even Cyrus’ dad, singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was impressed. “I was blown away when they did ‘Jolene,’ he said. “It was amazing, it was just a moment of going, ‘Wow, listen to how great they sound together.”
In fact, Cyrus’ voice jived so well with the song that she went on to add it her own repertoire, performing it both solo (like at a 2012 Backyards Session and at a 2014 MTV Unplugged) and again with Parton on The Voice in 2016.
But ultimately her dad loved that the song gave the two something to bond over. “It’s great that she has someone like Dolly to idolize, someone to look up to,” he explained to AP. “Having that type of influence in her life, it’s so amazing and so special.”
But Parton didn’t feel like the young Cyrus really needed her. “She does not need my advice,” she told AP. “But she’s often asking for information and advice, and I tell her what I know, but I think the girl’s doing all right without me.”
Parton stood by Cyrus through controversial times
As Cyrus grew out of her Disney character and established her own grown-up persona, she hit a few patches of edgy and overly sexy behavior that some saw as a cry for help. But Parton always had her back.
“People didn’t want her to grow up — they got mad at her,” Parton told The Sun. “One day she’d had enough and told me, ‘I need to murder Hannah Montana in order for people to accept who I really am.”
The words seemed harsh, but no one understood more so than Parton. She was worried — but not for her goddaughter. Her fear rested in how the public would react. “I was holding my breath, hoping that people didn’t totally crucify her,” she added.
And when Cyrus was honored as part of the prestigious Time 100 in 2014, it was Parton who nipped her entire image in the bud. “If I didn’t know how smart and talented Miley is, I might worry about her. But I’ve watched her grow up. So I don’t,” Parton wrote. “She knows what she’s doing. She was very proud of the work she did as Hannah Montana, but people were gonna leave her there forever.”
She went on to explain why her goddaughter had to do such a 180 with her image. “She felt she had to do something completely drastic. And she did. She made her point, she made her mark, and more power to her,” Parton wrote, complimenting the song “Wrecking Ball.”
“The girl can sing. The girl is smart. And she doesn’t have to be so drastic,” Parton added. “But I will respect her choices. I did it my way, so why can’t she do it her way?”
The pair continues to support each other personally and professionally
The duo continue to say close, both personally and professionally, always turning to one another when it comes to meaningful musical partnerships.
When Cyrus wrote her 2017 album Younger Now on her own — she made one exception: a track that she co-wrote with Parton called “Rainbowland.” “What a co-writer it is to have,” she told Ellen DeGeneres in 2017. “I just learned so much.”
And the mutual respect was returned in 2020 when Parton asked Cyrus to join her for a song on her A Holly Dolly Christmas album called “Christmas Is.”
“She faxed me,” the pop star told Graham Norton of how her godmother asked her to duet with her. “She gets upset when you don’t respond.” While the timeline didn't quite work, Cyrus knew she had to drop everything and make it happen.
“She makes physical records and so she had to get it turned in,” she said. “I was singing about Christmas in the middle of L.A. summer, and only for Dolly.”
But ultimately, it’s all about the respect they have for one another — and how important the value of their relationship is. “She treats people with love and respect,” Cyrus told Cosmopolitan. “Always a reminder to me and my family of what is important. Never let success change your heart.”
And that applies across the board. “She’s who you want to be, not just the way that she is as an artist and as an entertainer because… she’s lasted,” Cyrus said on The Tonight Show. “Her career has been so lasting and incredible, but she’s just the best living angel on earth.”