In 1972 Donna Fargo's first single, The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A., ended her career as a schoolteacher and made her an overnight star. In the next four years she composed and sang her way to five more No. 1 C&W hits, three gold LPs and a shelf-load of awards. More important, her nonstop touring, sexy drawl and sophistication (she's one of the few Nashville artists with a college degree) blazed the trail for today's country-pop fusion.

Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle are now the field's dominant figures, but Fargo has been slowed down by illness for two years. The first symptom was numbness in her left side, but doctors couldn't make a diagnosis until this June. Then, while taping her syndicated TV variety show (at the Osmonds' studio in Utah), she suffered ever more severe back pains and a tightening in her leg muscles that left her nearly paralyzed from the neck down, unable even to feed herself. After a battery of tests in a Santa Barbara, Calif. hospital, Fargo got the chilling news: At 32, like an estimated half-million other Americans, she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, a baffling and degenerative nerve disorder with no known cause—or cure.

MS can attack the body in stages of escalating frequency and severity—and can cause blindness, spasticity or paralysis. At first Fargo was "terrified." There were letters, she remembers, "warning me that I would be dead within six months, or that I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. I really hit bottom and cried for two weeks. No one knows how to cope or what to expect once you have this thing," Donna recalls. "I wanted to die." But there were many reasons not to. Stan Silver, her husband-manager-producer, was by her side, and colleagues like Tammy Wynette, Olivia Newton-John and Billy Jo Spears offered flowers and support. Far more encouraging were notes from "people who had my symptoms for as long as six months, then had no further attacks. Others I didn't even know," she adds, "flooded the heavens with prayers."

Gradually Fargo—onetime head cheerleader both at Mount Airy, N.C. High School and at nearby High Point College—fought back. "The hospital chaplain came by every day to ease my fears and psychic pain." Soon she found that "I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was. I've learned what it's like to go through hell and come out the other end."

The most common treatment of MS—rest—was hard to accept for Fargo, a self-described compulsive worker who has always loved the road. But after her release from the hospital, a two-week retreat to the Aspen condo she and Silver own was therapeutic and liberating. "I'd get up in the morning," she says, "and walk around humming The Happiest Girl, awed by all the beauty. Every day is precious to me now."

Slowly Fargo learned "to take things easier physically and not to get involved in more than I can do easily—and well." As her fans know, that still leaves plenty of options for Donna, the daughter of a well-to-do North Carolina tobacco farmer. Her new LP, Dark-Eyed Lady (part of a reported $1 million contract signed with Warner Records in 1976), is already moving up the country charts, and her former label has just released a Best Of collection that includes hits like You Can't Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don't Shine), Little Girl Gone and You Were Always There.

Just last month she journeyed back out to Utah to begin taping 13 new half hours for her TV series, under terms that Donna describes as "a new contract—with the Lord. He says that if you believe, He will take away all your stresses and worries. I believe," she says of her part of the deal. As for the rest? Fargo smiles: "That's His job."