PIGEON FORGE, TENN. — Deep in the forest of the Smoky Mountains, shafts of sunlight bounced off a long-forgotten chapel in the hills. Nine-year-old Dolly Parton often went there to sing. She liked the way her voice sounded as it echoed through the rafters.
That day seemed like any other spring afternoon until something special happened.
"If I could relive one moment of all my life, it would be this moment," she confides. "My grandpa was a minister, and ... I used to watch as people walked down the church aisle to dedicate themselves to the Lord. They seemed so happy.... I just longed to feel what it was like to communicate with God."
As she sat there alone in the chapel, she began to pray. "At that moment, I made a connection with God, and I've kept that feeling with me, always."
Even then, Ms. Parton dreamed of singing on stage. Now, thousands of appearances later, she will be inducted, along with Conway Twitty, into the Country Music Hall of Fame at the 33rd Annual Country Music Association Awards Show on Sept. 22.
Parton has been writing songs from those earliest days in the chapel. Today, she has a little tape recorder, and notepads in every room in the house. "Ideas for songs come everywhere, so I aim to be prepared," she says, smiling, in a recent interview. "I write songs when I'm on a plane; it helps pass the time.
"I really prefer going places in my big tour bus. If I have a show in New York, we'll drive the bus there. Even if it's in Los Angeles, I prefer to take the bus. I have a desk, and I can look out the window and get inspiration for a tune."
Parton, who occasionally tours with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris singing songs from their album, "Trio II," says it's cooking that brings out her hit tunes. "I get my best thoughts in the early morning hours when I'm in the kitchen."
Says Parton, "My husband, Carl, doesn't like my cooking. He eats salads and vegetables.... Carl says, 'You're still cooking heavy, buttery food like you did when you lived at home with your 11 brothers and sisters.' He's right. I just don't know how to cook for two."
Lately, the singer has been cooking up songs for another album, mapping two films that her Sand Dollar Production company will make, answering fan mail from her TNN cable TV special, "Dolly's Special Memories," and spending time at her amusement park. Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., was listed in Southern Living Magazine as one of the best amusement parks in the country.
It's the park's 14th anniversary, and each year it tries to add something new. This season there are two new attractions: the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame & Museum, which takes visitors on a journey from gospel's l9th-century roots to the present; and a thrill ride, the Tennessee Tornado.
The world's first spiral loop roller coaster, the Tornado starts with an invigorating climb to 163 feet above the valley floor for a terrific view (that is, if your eyes are open). Then it plunges 125 feet at 63 m.p.h. in total darkness through a mountain. No sooner do you get out of this thriller, than you are turned upside-down in a 110-foot-high, 360-degree spiral loop screw.
Has Parton taken a ride on the Tennessee Tornado? "Not me," she squeals. "I'll confess I'd be scared to death that I'd lose my wig ... or fall out. The managers at the park tell me it's not good business to talk that way, but I think it is. It's such an exciting ride, I'm afraid of it!"
Wherever her career takes her, Parton usually manages to be at Dollywood for opening day, Kids' Day in August, harvest time, when the home crafters have their quilts and food on display, and at Christmas, when "it's frequently snow-covered."
She's also active in her Dollywood Foundation for Education, which works in the local community. When she started it in the 1960s, it was rather modest: "We'd buy uniforms for the [school] band; then we made donations to the birthing center.
"Our most ambitious project was to keep kids in school. We started a buddy-study program because our dropout rate in high school was too high." The foundation gives every child born in Sever County a book a month, from the day they are born until they enter kindergarten.
"We also give each child a bookcase, which is shaped like a train. They just love it, and it gets their attention...."
Just as Parton's career has garnered attention. "You know, I never wanted to be anybody, except who I am. So success to me has just added to my life...."