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How Dolly Parton mobilized country music for wildfire victims

Dolly Parton had just walked off stage after a rendition of her famous "Jolene" with Miley Cyrus on NBC's "The Voice" on a Wednesday late last month when she was given the news: The Smoky Mountains were burning. Her mountains — the ones she grew up in and still calls home, the mountains where her brothers and sisters live, that surround her Dollywood theme park — were on fire.

Dolly Parton had just walked off stage after a rendition of her famous “Jolene” with Miley Cyrus on NBC’s “The Voice” on a Wednesday late last month when she was given the news: The Smoky Mountains were burning. Her mountains — the ones she grew up in and still calls home, the mountains where her brothers and sisters live, that surround her Dollywood theme park — were on fire.

Parton went straight to her dressing room and turned on the television.

RELATED: Millions raised by Dolly's telethon

“My first thought was my family,” Parton said, her voice breaking with emotion. “Just my family, that’s always your first thought. It was so scary.”

Once assured her relatives were safe, Parton set to work on an effort that she was singularly equipped to carry out: mobilizing country music for a fundraising telethon that raised millions of dollars for victims of the devastating Sevier County wildfires — all in a matter of days.

VIDEO: Dolly performs Smoky Mountain Memories

By that Friday, Parton had created immediate, long-term ways to help her “people.” She announced her My People Fund, a coordinated effort with the Dollywood Foundation and area businesses that pledged to provide $1,000 a month for six months to families who lost their primary residences in the fire. Then she revealed plans for the telethon.

MORE: Smokies Strong t-shirts raise money for wildfire victims

And as only she could, the legendary singer used a combination of unmatched influence in the industry and a wealth of goodwill that she has built over several decades to ensure its success. More than 20 artists played the event Tuesday. By the halfway point in the telethon, Parton had collected $1.86 million in large donations and celebrity call-ins alone — a total including money gathered from online and the phone bank staffed by stars including Paula Deen, Chris Stapleton, Jason Crabb, Larry Gatlin and members of the Tennessee Titans wasn't available. According to event organizers, several million dollars was raised by the end of the live telethon. The final total was expected to climb far higher and would be announced after the program aired on the West Coast.

“It’s my place to do this,” Parton said before a live show featuring performances from Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Chris Stapleton, Amy Grant, Chris Young, Alabama, Alison Krauss, Cyndi Lauper, Hank Williams Jr. and more. “I should do it.”

Grant noted that Parton was the only person who could do it.

“Because of her story and because everyone has been welcomed into Dolly’s story through her movies, I just think people feel vested and invested in her and where she came from,” said Grant, who used her only day off this week to play the telethon. “It’s just the way she’s lived her life. She’s just welcomed the world to that part of Tennessee.”

Others also carved out time to participate.

Big & Rich stepped away from recording their new album to play the telethon. Parton’s fellow Sevier County native Kristian Bush left a video shoot and came straight to the studio to work the phone bank. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry stopped by on her way to the airport, saying: “We’re all Tennesseans, and the fact that Dolly is doing this today speaks to her big heart and her commitment to making sure those folks in Sevier County have what they need.”

Alabama’s Randy Owen rescheduled a yearslong standing birthday dinner date with his daughter to perform.

GALLERY: Smoky Mountains Rise telethon

“I’m here, my daughter is totally cool with it," Owen said. "We’ll find another day. Unfortunately for the people up there, they couldn’t have another day.”

Parton dreamed up her My People Fund on Nov. 30 and it was announced the same day. At the time, 300 homes were reported lost. Soon after, the number swelled by 1,000. For Parton and her foundation, that meant a total outlay of more than $8 million. Parton’s team, including manager Danny Nozell, publicist Kirt Webster and Dollywood’s director of media/public relations, Pete Owens, developed the idea for the fundraiser two days later to help with ever-ballooning costs and to raise awareness.

Parton agreed and Webster leaked the news of the telethon Dec. 3. By the next day, Alison Krauss had volunteered to perform. Then Kenny Rogers signed on. Parton wanted to invite Reba McEntire. With those three names, Webster officially announced the telethon. On Dec. 5, Parton’s team started looking for a broadcast partner. CMT turned them down, because, Webster said, the network didn’t believe the production value they required could be executed in such a short time frame. However, CMT donated $100,000 to Parton’s My People Fund. Next, phone calls were placed to Scripps Networks, AXS-TV, RFD-TV and other networks and television partners were secured.

“Now we have to put on a show,” Webster said. “Within a period of nine or 10 days, we had all of the artists booked, we had all of Dolly’s tour production handling production … and we were off to the races. And here we are, day of, and it’s going smooth.”

Parton never doubted they could pull it off.

During the show, fellow singers including Carrie Underwood and singer/actor Kiefer Sutherland taped video messages and promised financial support. Dierks Bentley and Paul Simon each called in and pledged $100,000, and Chris Young was on hand with members of the CMA to present a $250,000 joint check from Kenny Chesney and the trade organization. Young, who also performed on the show, got carried away in the moment and tossed in $50,000 of his own money to make it an even $300,000.

“It wouldn’t have been possible unless God was in it, and I had such an amazing crew that’s so used to working together,” Parton said.

VIDEO: Dolly and Kenny perform Islands in the Stream

Rogers and a small handful of other acts pre-taped their performances Tuesday at Nove Entertainment, which is owned by Nozell. Hours later, the space also housed the live telethon. As soon as Parton spotted Rogers from the stage, their decadeslong friendship was apparent.

“Get up here, old man,” Parton joked. “Is your back hurting you again?” she asked as he gingerly eased onto a stool on stage. Rogers stood up to sing their famous duet “Islands in the Stream,” and when he swung his arm out dangerously close to Parton’s head, she swatted it away.

“You’re gonna mess up my hair,” she said laughing, mid-song.

After the performance, Rogers joked that she had slapped him. Parton quipped, “I’d slap my daddy before I’d slap you.”

Other performance highlights included Cyndi Lauper, who drew applause from the crew watching the telethon with her stripped-down version of her hit "Time After Time" performed on a dulcimer and McEntire's soaring "O Come All Ye Faithful."

Later, Rogers, 78, said he hurts every day and that at his age, he doesn’t get good days anymore. However, when Parton asked him to perform, he couldn’t say no.

“I’m thrilled to be here and I’m going to donate $10,000,” Rogers said. “Me and Dolly have a deal with each other. We don’t ask each other to do trivial things. When she asks me, I know it’s important to her. And when I ask her, she knows it’s important to me.”

And it was important. The Sevier County fires, which killed 14 people and scorched more than 17,000 acres, blazed closer to Parton’s property than many people realize. Owens said the blaze scorched to within 100 feet of the train depot at Dollywood. A team of 50 people stayed ahead of the flames by spraying structures down, and a fire line was cut around the Upper Middle Creek ridge.

“I can’t say the fire didn’t come close,” Parton said. “It was a good year for us to be safe, but everybody is not that fortunate, and that’s all the more reason we should be grateful for what we have. That’s the great thing about the country music business. I just love how the country people just come to our rescue. … It’s just amazing how everyone works together.”

For a pre-application for the My People Fund to receive aid or to donate, visit www.dollywoodfoundation.org.

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