Reese Witherspoon paid tribute Sunday night to fellow Tennessean Dolly Parton at the annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, DC, calling Parton an "amazing country legend" and telling her "I will always love you."
Witherspoon also shared a few favorite "Dollyisms" with the audience: "I don't get offended by dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb and I know that I'm definitely not blonde." And, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap."
Parton smiled and blew kisses from the box where she sat with the night's fellow honorees Steven Spielberg, Smokey Robinson, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Zubin Mehta – as well as President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
Earlier in the evening, as she entered on the red carpet, Parton, 60, told PEOPLE: "I love what I do, and I'm very lucky. Here I am at the Kennedy Center. It feels like I made it."
As for Witherspoon, 30, she told PEOPLE after the show: "It's such an extraordinary honor to be an appreciative fan and to be here to honor her and her songwriting and her life and career."
Witherspoon's appearance was her first major public event since splitting
from her husband Ryan Phillippe in October. Asked if she expected to be out and about more, she said "Sure."
Fellow blondes Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood took the stage to perform some of Parton's best-known hits. Singing "9 to 5," a visibly nervous Simpson muffed a line and, as she finished, said: "Dolly you make so nervous. I can't even sing the words right."
Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Shania Twain, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss also sang Parton standards, and Witherspoon and Reba McEntire then joined them on stage to bow to Parton. Witherspoon stood next to Simpson and put an arm around her; apparently comforting the still upset Simpson. (Simpson later sang the number over for the CBS broadcast of the gala, set to air Dec. 26).
Simpson wasn't the only star to flub a line. Aretha Franklin, praising her hometown friend and fellow Motown great Smokey Robinson, botched a line but went on to say: "Smokey I found inspiration in your success. You made me feel like a natural woman." The Temptations, India.Arie and Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley then serenaded Robinson.
Josh Groban sang "Music of the Night" from The Phantom of the Opera
as its composer, Lloyd Webber, sat in his box and mouthed the words.
Tom Hanks and Liam Neeson led the tribute to Spielberg. Neeson said the director of Jaws
and Schindler's List
used his movies "to enlarge our world" and Hanks called him "one of the great masters."