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In Tough Times, Dolly Parton Makes A 'Joyful Noise'

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What would you do if the little town you lived in — and loved — was slowly dying, with no jobs and little hope?

In the new film Joyful Noise, a small-town Georgia church faces hard times with hallelujahs when a national competition offers their financially strapped choir its only chance at survival.

Dolly Parton, who plays the quick-witted G.G. Sparrow in the movie, thinks many people can relate to the movie's theme of pushing forward during hard times — that is, after all, what propelled Parton from the impoverished Appalachians to Nashville, becoming an American icon in the process.

Parton tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, that it's a good time for the feel-good movie, which is about "a little town that's going through their problems, like everyone is these days."

With the National Joyful Noise Competition looming, choir director Vi Rose Hill, played by Queen Latifah, makes the group get serious about traditional gospel music. But when G.G.'s grandson Randy suggests the choir take a chance on more modern songs, a holy battle flares up — and only gains heat when it's discovered that Randy (played by Jeremy Jordan) has the hots for Vi Rose's daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). At issue isn't race, but the fact that Randy's a bit of a bad boy.

The two leading ladies move beyond polite church chatter when Vi Rose lambasts G.G. for all the plastic surgery she's had. Parton's character retorts, "God didn't put plastic surgeons on earth to starve."

Parton asked writer and director Todd Graff to include this sort of humor.

"He was afraid to touch on some things," she tells Martin. "But I said, 'Look, I'm not touchy at all about this. If we can get a laugh, I'm all for it.' "

Music For The Movie

Three of the songs featured in the film are Parton's own, including "From Here to the Moon and Back," a ballad that she sings with actor and singer Jordan.

Parton has written thousands of songs and released dozens of albums since she started making music more than 40 years ago.

Graff told Nell Minow of the Movie Mom blog that the country music star's reputation for being prolific is not undeserved.

Graff said that when he asked Parton to revise a song she'd written to better fit the film, "she would say, 'If you don't like it, I'll write another one. It only takes me an hour.' "

In all, Parton ended up writing 12 songs, some of which she hopes to rework for future demos.

"Well, I love to write," the Grammy Award-winning singer says. "Especially when I've got a challenge."

Parton, who can play 12 instruments but can't read music, says songwriting comes naturally to her. "I just need a subject," she says, "and I'm off and running, 'cause I know how to rhyme, and I love the music, and I just go for it."

Singing Through Hard Times

Graff wrote the script with Parton in mind, and wardrobe aside, many elements of G.G.'s character bear true to the country star's life — including her strong faith.

But Parton, who's the granddaughter of a Pentecostal minister, says that when she was growing up, "we didn't have a choir, because we couldn't have afforded robes, but the whole congregation would sing."

The "Queen of Country" has sold millions of albums and won countless awards, but Parton has a humble background. Her father was a sharecropper, and she and her siblings grew up in a one-room cabin in Tennessee.

Like her character in the film, Parton has confronted hardship with good humor, hard work and resilience.

"I have been very poor," Parton said when she last sat down with Martin a few years ago, "and I know a lot of poor people that were having hard times before, and now they're having worse times."

But in a line that could have just as easily been said by her character in Joyful Noise, Parton added: "Even if we go down the tubes, let's go hand in hand trying to do something about it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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