Gospel side of Dolly

April 16, 1999

By Terry Morrow, News-Sentinel entertainment writer

There have always been two Dolly Partons.

One wears the low-cut dresses and high-cut skirts. She trots along in 5-inch heels and wears a mound of blond on her head that rivals Mount LeConte. She sings about heartache and laughs about her ample attributes. This Dolly was fashioned after "the town trash" in rural Sevier County.

The other one, perhaps the way she sees herself, is the woman underneath all the glitter and peppery talk, just a mountain girl with dreams and a guitar. She's the one who got her start singing in church and recalls the sermons of her late grandfather, the Rev. Jake Owens.

Church is where she started performing for a captive crowd.

"My family helped build The House of Prayer (church in Sevier County). My first memories are of me singing gospel music with my family. I always got carried away. You know me. I get carried away with everything I do," she says with a laugh during a telephone interview from her home in Nashville.

"The first songs I wrote were gospel songs because it was what I felt and knew."

Parton was raised a strict fundamentalist but has since found that celebrity makes attending church difficult. "You can imagine me in church and people looking at me instead of paying attention to what's being said in the sermon," she says.

Instead, she has built mini-chapels in her five homes and her offices, where she prays meditates. She fasts sometimes to get her creative juices flowing.

She repeats the Lord's Prayer daily. "It's just out of respect to God," she says.

"It's not like I feel like I have to do a ritual," she says. "It's just that every day I read Scripture. I pray a lot. I don't always have to close my eyes and bow my head. I can speak to God in my heart and I do, every day."

The spiritual side of Parton sometimes conflicts with the projects she does. After agreeing to star as a madame in the 1982 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Parton says she felt guilty.

"I wanted to pull out of it. I thought, 'Oh Lord, I never thought about this offending anybody else.' I never realized how much people looked at me as a role model. I couldn't get out of it because I was already under contract.

"I do believe that I had a bad experience on that film because I felt guilty," says Parton, whose favorite film is 1980's Resurrection, about a healer in the Bible belt.

Even now, she'll water down the name of the film to "The Best Little Chicken House in Texas" and on talk show appearances to publicize the film she would joke that her relatives and close friends were uncomfortable with her playing such a role.

She had regrets about a scene in her feature film debut in 9 to 5 too. It showed Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Parton sharing a marijuana cigarette.

"I feel like what gifts I have, the way I communicate with people, all comes from God's light," says the 54-year-old entertainer. "Even with the stupid, foolish things I say, I never feel like I am doing bad by it. I never feel wicked or anything."

In recent years, Parton has tried merging her two sides. Her version of the big, booming gospel aria "He's Alive," from her 1988 album White Limozeen, became a hit when secular radio stations discovered it and started playing it. Her song "Shine On" was featured in the 1997 film The Apostle.

When she took over Silver Dollar City in 1985 and renamed it Dollywood, she made sure her theme park had an old-fashioned chapel, where couples have married and sermons are sometimes preached

Gospel music is the theme for Dollywood's 14th season grand opening on Saturday and Sunday. Parton will be on hand to unveil the theme park's new Southern Gospel Hall of Fame.

She'll perform gospel music in concerts with her siblings and regional Southern gospel entertainers. Proceeds go to her Dollywood Foundation, which has raised almost $3 million in 11 years for educational programs in Sevier County.

To coincide with the gospel activity, she is also releasing Precious Memories, a collection of Southern gospel standards. It will only be available at Dollywood.

It's a contrast from the wild child who wrote in her autobiography about running naked on the lawn of pop singer/lounge act Tom Jones once. She has talked about lusting after men other than her husband.

Parton admits she is no saint or a hypocrite. She's just a woman with flaws.

"If you set yourself up or people think of you in a certain way, then they are going to be shocked when they find out you are actually human," she says. "I have never claimed to be anything more than a human."