Even though Dolly Parton‘s beloved Smoky Mountains were devastated by deadly wildfires in 2016, she knew the “mountain strong” people affected by the natural disaster would rise again.

“Everybody’s got that spiritual background,” she said of the locals who live in the same area where she spent her humble early years. “I think that good neighbors and faith and trust in God — and in one another — helps everyone pull together as a team. You got to pull as a community; as a family. That’s the only way you can keep going.” Her strong faith is what has helped the country legend, 72, pull herself through some of the toughest struggles in her own life.

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Dolly and her husband, Carl.

“I hurt like everybody else. I’m not always happy,” Dolly has admitted, and she’s faced several hurdles and heartaches through the years, including a family tragedy when she was growing up in the poverty-stricken Appalachian hills, a career-halting medical condition in the ’80s, and a marriage crisis with husband Carl Dean, 75, that made her briefly consider taking her own life.

“A belief in God is essential,” Dolly added of how her daily prayers and trust in God have helped her through every crisis. Dolly, the fourth of Robert Parton and Avie Parton’s 12 children, was surrounded by religion from an early age. “Our grandparents were Christians and our granddad was a minister. A healer, actually,” sister Stella Parton, 69, exclusively told Closer Weekly — in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now! — in a new interview. “Our grandparents believed in anointing people with olive oil and praying over them if they were ill, so if we were injured, we were prayed for.”

Stella, whose Old Time Singing gospel album was digitally released last year, said that she, Dolly, and the rest of their siblings still cherish their spiritual upbringing. “It shaped Dolly into who she is today, inside and out,” Stella insisted. “Growing up with very little except our family connection and God meant everything. Our faith is the most important thing to all of us. It was the key to our survival.”

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Dolly and her sister Stella.

The family shared a one-room shack in Locust Ridge, TN before later moving to a small house. Times were always lean, and tragedy struck when Dolly’s brother, Larry, was born when she was nine years old. “Since there were so many of us, my mother used to say, ‘This one is gonna be your baby,'” Dolly recalled, “and that meant you got to take extra care of it.”

Sadly, Larry died just four days after birth. “This particular baby was my baby,” Dolly revealed, “so there is a lot of heartache that goes on with that. But all things are hard, and that is what makes you who and what you are.” Shaken by the loss, young Dolly eventually found comfort in an abandoned chapel near her home that had a dilapidated piano inside.

There, her love of music blossomed, and she wrote songs on a makeshift instrument she created from some of the piano’s old strings. “I would sing hymns to God,” Dolly recalled, and she prayed there a lot, too. “One day as I prayed in earnest, I broke through some sort of spirit wall and found God,” she revealed of a life-altering moment, describing her Lord as “a friend I could talk to on a one-on-one basis.”

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Dolly (center) and her family on the day Larry was buried.

She has said, “the joy and the truth I found there is with me to this day. I had found God. I had found Dolly Parton. And I loved them both.” Her ongoing conversations with God have helped Dolly through more dark days, including a period in 1982 when the pain from severe abdominal bleeding forced her to seek medical attention and cancel a tour.

By 1984, she underwent a partial hysterectomy and was told she’d never be able to have children with husband Carl. “It was a really bad time,” she admitted of sinking into a two-year depression and being forced to scale back her professional commitments. “Sometimes God just has to smack you down,” she said of the message from above. “He was almost saying, ‘Sit your pretty little ass down because we have to deal with some stuff!'”

Around that time, Dolly also wrestled with guilt over an emotional affair she had during her marriage to Carl, whom she wed in 1966. Even though her dalliance ended, she was so rattled by her feelings for another man that she found herself eyeing her gun. “I looked at it a long time. Then, just as I picked it up, just to hold it, and look at it for a moment, our little dog, Popeye, came running up the stairs,” Dolly said. “The tap-tap of his paws jolted me back to reality, I suddenly froze and I put the gun down.”

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Startled but thankful for the interruption, Dolly quickly started to pray. “I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God,” she said, adding, “I don’t think I’d have done it, killed myself, but I can’t say for sure. Now that I’ve gone through that terrible moment, I can certainly understand the possibilities, even for someone solid like me, if the pain gets bad enough.”

Having survived that trial in their marriage, Dolly and Carl are thrilled to celebrate their 52nd anniversary on May 30. Though Dolly’s fame prevents her from attending services at a public church, the couple have built their own little chapel on the grounds of their farm in Brentwood, TN. “She spends time there most every day she’s home,” a friend told Closer. “She not only prays there, but she often goes there to write spiritual songs. Carl goes as well, and it’s their quiet place to reflect, pray, and give thanks.”

The duo have spent lots of time apart during Dolly’s high-profile and frenetic career, as the reclusive Carl chooses to stay home — and out of the limelight. “But Dolly’s in her 70s now, and she has different priorities,” her friend said. “She’s been home a lot these past nine months, and she and Carl have spent most of the year together. It seems to be their new norm.”

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Dolly rehearsing for the Gospel Music Awards in 1989.

What hasn’t changed is their love for one another. “There’s still a lot of passion between them,” the friend promised. “Dolly still enjoys cooking for Carl, and he still writes her love poems. Despite all their ups and downs, they both consider their relationship a match made in heaven!” And Dolly is more confident than ever in her marriage.

“She always lets God’s hand guide her through life,” another pal said, “and she’s always come to the realization that God believes her place is with Carl.” After all, as Dolly quips with her trademark wit, “We know each other so well. I know every line in Carl’s face, and he knows every hair in my wig!”

For more on Dolly Parton, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!

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