Although she has a gospel album coming out in connection with her April 1 TNN gospel special "Precious Memories," Dolly Parton has had a long and successful history with the sacred genre.
True, she and her family sang often in the little churches throughout the hamlets of east Tennessee when she was a child, and that gospel upbringing, especially having a preacher for a grandfather, showed throughout her career.
One of her first recordings after moving to Nashville and signing to Monument records was "Everything's Beautiful (In It's Own Way)," which she wrote. The words paint a loving picture of how beauty can be found in each of God's creations. Although unreleased, her vocals were added to Willie Nelson's in 1982 and released as a duet which hit No. 7 on the country charts.
Faith played an important role in many of her songs through the years. In 1969, her second duet album with Porter Wagoner, Just The Two of Us, included the melodrama "The Party," also written by Dolly, in which the couple's young children ask if their parents will take them to church the next morning, Sunday, but they have plans to attend a party instead. While they are gone, a fire burns their home to the ground, killing their children. "We took their little bodies to church the next day. Although we left the party early, we still got home too late," the song ends.
A frequent theme, this is repeated in many of her songs: death and rebirth in Heaven, as evidenced in other songs she has written and recorded, including "Malena" (with Porter, 1969, Always, Always), "Silver Sandals" (with Porter, 1970, Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca), "Ragged Angel" (with Porter, 1970 Once More), "Me and Little Andy" (1977, Here You Come Again) and "Little David's Harp" (with Porter, 1980, Porter & Dolly).
She also has had a more spiritual bent, having penned and recorded songs such as "The Seeker" (1975, Dolly, and 1995, Something Special, and also recorded by Merle Haggard and which she sings on her special; No. 2 for two weeks in 1975), "There" (1977, New Harvest, First Gathering), "God's Coloring Book" (1977, Here You Come Again, and also recorded by The Country Gentlemen), "Calm on The Water" (1983, Burlap and Satin), "High and Mighty" (1993, Slow Dancing With The Moon) and "When Jesus Comes Calling For Me" (1998, Hungry Again).
She's recorded Porter Wagoner's deeply spiritual "When I Sing For Him" (1972, Sings Porter Wagoner) and "The Mystery of the Mystery" (1971, Coat of Many Colors); Carl Perkins' "Silver and Gold" (1991, Eagle When She Flies, No. 15); the classic "How Great Thou Art" (1970, A Real Live Dolly, 1971, Golden Streets of Glory; "Wayfaring Stranger" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" (1994, Heartsongs); the traditional "Farther Along" (with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, 1987, Trio); and Don Francisco's "He's Alive" (1989, White Limozeen). So popular was the latter song after she performed it on the CMA Awards, requests poured into radio stations, and the record label was forced to release it as a single. One of her most intriguing songs, since it's the story of the Resurrection as told through the eyes of the Apostle Peter, it reached only No. 39, but Dolly was asked to perform it, and did so, that year on the Dove Awards, the annual gospel music awards.
Many of her story songs also have a religious bent, such as the songs she's written "Daddy Was An Old Time Preacherman" (with Porter, 1970, Once More, No. 7, nominated for a country duo Grammy) about her grandfather, "The Last One To Touch Me" (1971, Joshua, also recorded by Porter Wagoner), "Early Morning Breeze" (1971, Coat of Many Colors, and 1974, Jolene), "Mission Chapel Memories" (1972, Touch Your Woman), "There'll Always Be Music" (with Porter, 1973, Love and Music), "Sacred Memories" (1974, Love is Like a Butterfly), "Preacher Tom" (1976, All I Can Do) and "Appalachian Memories" (1983, Burlap and Satin, 1994, Heartsongs as "Smoky Mountain Memories").
By far, her greatest gospel compilation was Golden Streets of Glory. It included 10 full-fledged gospel songs, three written by Dolly, two written by an aunt and one written by her grandfather the pastor. Two of Dolly's songs on the album, "The Master's Hand" and "Lord Hold My Hand," were covered by, respectively, the New Coon Creek Girls and Merle Haggard. Also in this collection was, as mentioned earlier, "How Great Thou Art," as well as the standards "I Believe" and "Wings of a Dove," the latter of which Dolly would re-record with Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn in 1993 on Honky Tonk Angels. This collection remains one of the most prized and sought-after by hardcore Dolly fans, selling for $80-$100 per original album. It was re-released in the mid-'70s and again in 1993 under its original title and most recently as the budget collection I Believe in 1997.
Although not included on the album, Dolly also recorded her own arrangement of the traditional spiritual "Comin' For To Carry Me Home" and released as a single with "Golden Streets of Glory" (nominated for Best Sacred Performance Grammy) as the B-side. It peaked at No. 23.
So Dolly's new gospel album is sure to be a return to her roots in the churches of east Tennessee.