From Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton

Copyright 1994 Dolly Parton

I'll never forget this one night when Daddy had taken us way out to a little church up on a high ridge. There was no kind of instrumentation, and the hymns were all sung a capella. During the preaching, there was a little more shouting from the congregation than usual. When it came time for us to sing, we were introduced by the preacher, a wiry little man with kind of a fiery look in his eyes. We stepped up to the front and took our places on the old wood-plank platform to one side of the pulpit. Softly, I sung a note to get us started because it was decided that I could come closest to hitting a key that we could all sing in. We began our songs, just as we had planned. I was aware that the pastor was on the stage behind us, but I didn't think anything of it.

After a while, I could feel Stella nudging me in the ribs, trying not to be noticed. I looked at her, and she motioned with her head slightly back toward where the preacher was standing. He seemed to be totally wrapped up in the spirit, nearly in a trance. I didn't think too much of it, until I spotted a familiar sight, the back markings of a snake, a cottonmouth moccasin. I had seen them in the woods, usually scurrying across the path toward cover. They were afraid of me, and I was afraid of them. And up to now, we had always managed to keep our distance from each other. Here, apparently, they were a part of the worship service. I could see now, out of my peripheral vision, that the preacher had a full-grown cottonmouth by the back of the head and it was twisting and coiling all around his forearm.

Some members of the congregation were reaching out as if they wanted to touch it. The preacher was getting more and more worked up, and he reached into a wooden crate by the pulpit and took out two more snakes. This time he seemed to be holding them much more carelessly. He lifted them near his face as if daring them to strike.

We sisters just kept on singing, unconsciously moving away from the snakes until we were very near the end of the platform. Just then I noticed something that struck a note of fear in my heart much greater than that inspired by the snakes. My father had stepped into the back of the church to hear his little girls sing. Whatever he had been drinking didn't impair his ability to see exactly what the preacher had in his hands. Just at that moment, the man and his snakes took a step toward the congregation, thus toward us.

Daddy had seen enough. He charged down the aisle like a wild bore through a thicket. "You get them Goddamn snakes away from my kids!" Daddy bellowed with a force in his voice I had never heard before. It was amazing how quickly that preacher broke his trance and paid heed. He had heard the voice of a higher power, in this case a really pissed-off redneck. Daddy swooped us up front and out the front door before we had time to think about what was happening. We didn't even stop singing until we were almost down the steps into the churchyard.

We were glad to be out of there, and I at least was proud that Daddy had come to our rescue. But Daddy obviously felt terrible about it. On the way home in the car, he got to feeling especially bad. "Goddamn! I can't believe I said Goddamn in church!" he muttered to himself. He finally got so upset he had to stop the car and get out into the woods and, in his way, ask God's forgiveness.