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Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

Review

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

One of the greatest female singers of the current era, Dolly Parton is often misunderstood as she is judged by the lyrics of only one or a few of her famous songs. By examining her thoroughly through her musical creations, author and music professor Lydia R. Hamessley gives a dynamic view of this remarkable star.

Parton did indeed grow up in poverty; the doctor who delivered her in 1946 Tennessee was paid with corn meal, and she was the fourth of 12 children. From the earliest age, she started singing --- first the church music of her parents like “Wayfaring Stranger” and then the traditional Appalachian ballads like “Barbara Allen.” She made her own musical instruments, forced her younger siblings to be her “audience” and got her first job on a local TV/radio show when she was 10. But the aspect that distinguishes her from other women who might have similar stories to tell was her strong penchant for song composition.

"By examining her thoroughly through her musical creations, author and music professor Lydia R. Hamessley gives a dynamic view of this remarkable star."

Hamessley says that people are amazed when they learn that Parton has written about 3,000 songs, of which 450 have been recorded. Her childhood and upbringing are filtered through her songs, the best known of which is perhaps “Coat of Many Colors,” reflecting on the suffering and shame of poverty and the determination to be proud despite the judgment of others. The latter is a theme that runs through many of Parton’s greatest hits.

Hamessley’s exploration of Parton’s career takes the reader --- via her songs --- through her years performing with Porter Wagoner, her successful venture into the world of pop music, and her return to country style in later years. Well-known and lesser-known compositions are dissected in detail. Her obliquely expressed feminism comes to light in such lyrics as “she’s a sparrow when she’s broken, but she’s an eagle when she flies.” Some of her initial perplexity about life in the big city is revealed in “When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow”: 

New York City ain’t no kind of place
For a country girl with a friendly face

Hamessley was supported in her prodigious work, which spanned several years, by Parton’s producer and friend Steve Buckingham, who provides the book’s foreword. Much of her insight, while bolstered by peripheral research, comes directly through Parton’s “generosity in answering a long list of questions.” The many quotations from Parton, one of the most recognized figures in American entertainment and honored with a musical theme park in her name, show a thoughtful, introspective, rather humble personality that belies her often over-the-top stage presence.

Parton offered this view of her songs and her singing in plain language with which most singers would readily identify: “That’s how I express my feelings… it feels natural like I want to go to those places.” And her final words for Hamessley’s book are 100% Dolly: “I’d love to just die in the middle of a great song --- that I had written, hopefully.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 16, 2020

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton
by Lydia R. Hamessley

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Music, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • ISBN-10: 0252085426
  • ISBN-13: 9780252085420