BRANSON, Mo. --
The diner's crowded for a weekday morning.
Dishes clatter, spoons clink on glass, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. Tables are packed hungry tourists gearing up for a day of sightseeing, locals headed to work.
The waitress turns from the counter with a microphone fills the restaurant with song, strong and clear:
"I'm only human, I'm just a woman
Help me believe all I can be,
And all that I am.
Show me the stairway, that I have to climb
Lord for my sake, teach me to take
One day at a time."
Bernie Parquette sings from the heart, feeling the faith in every word.
"Every day, when I come to work, I ask the Lord to bless someone with one of my songs," she says. "I want people to feel what I feel, and this is the only way I can get it across."
A gospel musician and singing waitress, Bernie feels blessed. And she wants to share the wealth.
Five days a week, she serves up food and fellowship at the Hard Luck Diner on the 76 strip. On weekends, she takes her music ministry on the road.
Bernie, voted Female Vocalist of the Year by the Branson Gospel Music Association for 2000 and 2001, believes in the power of music and the strength of its message.
"I've watched people break down and cry in their hamburgers," says the 49-year-old Minnesota native. "If my song brings out that emotion, then it's done its job."
She's worked at the diner since 1998, moving to the Ozarks with her husband, Tom, after trauma touched their lives and God, she says, led them to their new vocation.
Growing up in Minnesota, Bernie would feed the chickens and milk the cows and sing along with the songs playing on the transistor radio she carried constantly.
"I can remember being in my sister's bedroom -- I must have been 7 or 8 years old -- and listening to the radio and hearing these singers sing these songs and do these wonderful things with their voices -- I always wanted to do that. I can't believe I'm doing it now."
The emotion that rings so clear in her songs today was hard-earned. Her early life was filled with loss -- her father died when she was 10, her high school sweetheart died in Vietnam when she was 16, and two years later, another boyfriend was lost to the war effort, as well.
"I wasn't bitter, and I didn't blame God, but I didn't really understand what was going on, why this would happen," she recalls. "I prayed, but I wasn't paying attention. ... But I've learned a lot over the years -- now, I listen."
She taught herself to play guitar, eventually attending the Stamps School of Music in Waxahachie, Texas, and later working for gospel great J.D. Sumner's studio in Nashville.
She eventually ended up in Wisconsin, married, then divorced, with a daughter and a son. Eventually, she returned to Minnesota.
Tom Parquette followed her home.
"I met him in Wisconsin, and he just came back after me," she says, laughing.
The family settled in. Tom worked as an over-the-road trucker; Bernie became as a seamstress. Music became a thing of the past.
Then one night, her husband came home with a surprise -- a guitar.
"I knew one of her great loves was music, and I could see how she expressed her emotions through song," he says. "I just felt like she should get back to it; this was just a little push in the right direction."
She began playing, taking lessons, relearning what she already knew. This time around, she sang with her daughter, in churches and small concerts.
Then tragedy struck. She came home one afternoon to see her husband's brother's face on the television screen. A police officer near retirement, he'd just been killed in a domestic dispute.
A month later, her husband, Tom, still shaken, sat at the end of their bed late at night. He began feeling numb. She rushed him to the hospital, where he suffered a heart attack.
Five days later, she was in the parking lot of the hospital, waiting to take him back home. Life, she knew, had to change.
Tired and discouraged, she sat in her car and smoked the last cigarette in her pack.
And something happened.
"I smoked it, and I threw it out the window, and I accepted Christ right then," she remembers, her voice breaking. "I asked for help. I asked for help from Christ to change my life. ... I surrendered. I just gave it all to God."
Both she and her husband, heavy smokers, kicked the habit.
On a whim, they moved to Branson, a little town in the Ozarks they'd visited on vacation. Several months later, Barbara Fairchild stopped in for a bite to eat. Hearing Bernie sing, the Branson entertainer excitedly waved the waitress over to her table.
"(Barbara) had her own theater at the time, and she wanted me to sing at the theater, at the 'Jammin' for Jesus' program that Sunday," Bernie recalls, her brown eyes still wide with awe at the memory. "She's so nice and laid back, and she said, 'Just come to the back door and I'll let you in -- it'll just be folks like you and me.'
"So I went. And I'm up on the stage and I look around, and there are all the entertainers in Branson. I said, 'I can't do this. I'm a waitress."'
She did it, though. She sang. That Sunday and the Sundays after. Her first gig led to others. Then still more, where she shared her songs and her testimony.
Then came the recognition from the gospel association, music tours, the release of her first CD, "Looking to Him," in 2000, and her second, "Enjoying the Journey."
She's living her dream, says husband Tom, who handles her sound production. They both are.
"Her ministry is building up all the time," he says. "Before she does an original song, or any cover material, she very carefully looks over the lyrics and the content -- she has to believe in what she's doing, or she doesn't do it."