“I always try to remember what Christmas is really about, and that’s the birth of Christ.” So said country music legend Dolly Parton when I interviewed her recently about her new projects, including the Christmas album “A Holly Dolly Christmas” and the Netflix movie musical “Christmas on the Square.” (Podcast of our interview is below.)
Dolly’s embrace of the holiday’s sacred meaning is clear in the chorus of one of the album’s songs: “Circle of love, halo of light / When Jesus was born, on that Christmas night / And oh what a night! That Holy night was / When Bethlehem glowed, in the circle of love.”
Dolly grew up in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains in a family of 12 children. Though her parents didn’t have much money, they made up for it with an abundance of love and faith. Dolly told me, “My Grandpa – my mother’s dad – pastored a church called the House of Prayer. We always had Christmas service at that little church. Christmas for us was singing all the great songs, Mama reading the story from the Bible, Grandpa talking about it. But the story of Christ went year-round in our place. We had Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday school, Sunday night prayer meetings. I was brought up believing that through God all things are possible and that Jesus loves me. That’s embedded in me. It follows me through everything that I do. It’s in my songs, my heart, my speech. I’m proud to have that in my background. It keeps me humble.”
God has also been present in the three Christopher Award-winning TV movies Dolly has produced: “Coat of Many Colors,” “Christmas of Many Colors,” and “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings: These Old Bones.” It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that faith is also an element in her new Netflix movie, a musical called “Christmas on the Square,” which was inspired by a story written by Dolly’s longtime friend and producing partner Sam Haskell.
The movie features 14 original songs written by Dolly (who plays an angel), and stars Christine Baranski as a greedy businesswoman willing to let the town she grew up in be destroyed by a land developer. TV reviewer Kate O’Hare points out, “‘Christmas on the Square’ has pro-marriage, pro-family and pro-faith messages sprinkled throughout, without ever getting too preachy.”
Another of Dolly’s recent projects is the book “Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics,” in which she revisits 175 of her most popular and lesser-known songs: from “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You,” to “Dr. Robert F. Thomas,” a tribute to the doctor who delivered her and selflessly served the poor people in her community for many years.
No matter what type of song Dolly is writing, she always finds elements of the divine in the experience. She said, “God is my co-writer and my co-pilot. Anything that I do, I always keep God first and foremost because I feel like that’s where I draw my strength…[Songwriting] is my God-time. I have a little world that I work in with God and leave myself open [to Him]. Some times are better than others, but I enjoy the process because God gave me my gift. We all have our gifts. Some of us don’t use them like we should. It’s like that Scripture in the Bible about hiding [your light] under a bushel basket. If you don’t let it shine, it’ll go out. So I feel like God gave me this gift, and I want to write, create, spread joy, and spread a message. And I want to be there for other people. I know God is there for me.”
Dolly lets her light shine in many ways, perhaps most impressively through the Imagination Library, which has donated more than 147 million books to children worldwide to promote literacy and self-esteem. But just like anyone else, Dolly endures times of darkness.
As it says on the three Christopher Awards she’s won, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Dolly agrees with that sentiment.
In times of darkness, she concluded, “I go to that God core inside me. Even when I feel like my little pilot light might have gone out, I know it’s still there. I just have to reignite it through prayer, faith, love, friends, and family.”
(To listen to my full interview with Dolly Parton, click on the podcast link):