Louise Mandrell will receive Southern gospel's James D. Vaughan Impact Award

Sep. 30, 2013 @ 08:35 AM

When Louise Mandrell started in the entertainment business, she had gospel in mind.

“I went to my dad and said, ‘I want to sing Southern gospel music,’” she said on the phone from Nashville, where she lives. “He said, ‘Let me talk to people in Southern gospel and see what they can do to help.’”

They asked why she wanted to sing gospel. “Because I’m a Christian, and I love the Lord, and that’s the music I want to do,” she recalled saying.

They had another idea. “They said, ‘Your family has a name in country music,’” Mandrell said. “‘Why not put gospel music in your show, and take gospel to people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise?’”

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, Mandrell will be at Dollywood to accept the James D. Vaughan Impact Award from the Southern Gospel Music Association, whose hall of fame and museum are at the park. The 11 a.m. ceremony will take place on a stage outside the Chasing Rainbows museum and is open to park visitors.

Past recipients of the award include gospel stalwarts like Bill Gaither and James Blackwood, as well as country stars Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Statler Brothers and Mandrell’s sister Barbara.

At 3 p.m., Louise will perform at the association’s hall of fame induction ceremony and Singing News Fan Awards. That event is ticketed and takes place in DP’s Celebrity Theater. For tickets, call the association at 865-908-4040.

“Gospel music touches the heart,” Mandrell said. “I love gospel music, in particular Southern gospel. I wish my daddy was still alive. He would be the only person who understands what this award means to me.”

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Mandrell did her earliest performing at church singings, with her family. “We would visit churches, and they would take up an offering to cover the expenses,” she said. “My dad would give it all back.”

Mandrell started a country music career in the late 1970s. Beginning in 1980, she, Barbara and sister Irlene starred on the NBC variety show “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters,” which featured weekly gospel music.

“My sister Barbara, who is my mentor, took a stand with NBC,” Louise said. “We were about to tape the first show, and NBC sent a message saying, ‘Do not use the gospel section.’ Barbara said, ‘You can cancel our show in six weeks. You have that right. But we’re going to do it.’”

The show performed so successfully in the ratings, Louise said, that “NBC never talked about it again.”

Mandrell released a string of hit country records in the 1980s, and in 1997, she opened the Louise Mandrell Theater in Pigeon Forge. Her daughter was a teenager, and “I needed to be a stay-at-home mom,” Mandrell said. “So we picked East Tennessee. It’s where God led me.”

Mandrell’s Pigeon Forge shows featured gospel segments, and the theater launched the award-winning gospel group the Triumphant Quartet. Mandrell will perform with Triumphant Wednesday at the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame ceremonies.

The theater also hosted weekly praise and worship services. “We had big crowds for that,” Mandrell said. “Sometimes the tourists didn’t know where to go to church.”

At the services, which were partly organized by Mandrell’s daughter, Nicole, Mandrell worked as a greeter. “I said, ‘Nicole, I love speaking. Or what if I sing?’” Mandrell said, laughing. “She said, ‘Mom, you’re a greeter.’”

During regular performances, Mandrell mentioned her greeting duties. “People would show up (to services) saying, ‘We wondered if you’d really be here,’” Mandrell said. “I had the longest greeting lines. I used to tease the other greeters.”

Mandrell closed the theater in 2005. “It was a really hard thing to leave,” she said. “Pigeon Forge was the first home I’d ever had. I grew up traveling. Dad joked that we were like gypsies. Pigeon Forge was the first time I ever felt like a community.”

More than anything else about her time in Pigeon Forge, she misses being a church greeter.

“I felt like I was making a difference,” she said. “That’s all anyone needs in life, is to feel like they’re making a difference.”

kburns@themountainpress.com