Biblioshelf Musings – Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

Hello Bibliofriends,

Breaking away from the fantasy genre today and into the world of one of my favourite musical artists of all time – Dolly Parton. From listening to my grandparents’ Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash cassettes as a child, to taking up line dancing and even publishing my own dances online – it’s safe to say that despite the small country music scene we seem to have here in the UK, country music has always been a part of my life – and no one does country quite like Dolly Parton.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic wiping out most of the best social events of the summer, including the famous Glastonbury Festival, BBC iPlayer started to replay many of the greatest sets from across the years and one of them was Dolly’s 2014 show where she performed in front of approximately 180,000 people (and wowed everyone by playing the Benny Hill theme tune on a bejewelled saxophone!). It was one of those concerts that you really regret not being at… Since re-watching that set, I’ve been on a song downloading and book-buying mission to find out more about the Queen of Country.

When Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton by Lydia R. Hamessley became available to read on Netgalley, it was a given that I’d be clicking the ‘Read Now’ button! A big thank you to Netgalley, the University of Illinois Press and Lydia Hamessley for the opportunity to read a free e-arc in exchange for an honest review.


Book: Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton
Series: Women Composers – Pioneering Women in Music
Author: Lydia R. Hamessley
Genre: Biographies and Memoirs | Entertainment | Music
Publication Date: October 12th 2020
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Pages: 312 (e-book)
Rating: 📚📚📚📚

Synopsis (from UI Press – Book’s webpage )

The creative process of a great American songwriter.

Dolly Parton’s success as a performer and pop culture phenomenon has overshadowed her achievements as a songwriter. But she sees herself as a songwriter first, and with good reason. Parton’s compositions like “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” have become American standards with an impact far beyond country music. 

Lydia R. Hamessley’s expert analysis and Parton’s characteristically straightforward input inform this comprehensive look at the process, influences, and themes that have shaped the superstar’s songwriting artistry. Hamessley reveals how Parton’s loving, hardscrabble childhood in the Smoky Mountains provided the musical language, rhythms, and memories of old-time music that resonate in so many of her songs. Hamessley further provides an understanding of how Parton combines her cultural and musical heritage with an artisan’s sense of craft and design to compose eloquent, painfully honest, and gripping songs about women’s lives, poverty, heartbreak, inspiration, and love. 

Filled with insights on hit songs and less familiar gems, Unlikely Angel covers the full arc of Dolly Parton’s career and offers an unprecedented look at the creative force behind the image.

My Musings

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton was such an enjoyable read. So often when reading about Dolly Parton you hear the familiar stories and anecdotes of her upbringing, endeavours in the world of philanthropy and her presence as a cultural icon – amidst all of the rumours and gossip…
However, Lydia Hamessley forgoes these popular threads and instead focuses on the creative processes and influences behind some of Dolly Parton’s most iconic songs.

Whereas many Dolly fans may be familiar with the inspirations and narratives behind ‘Coat of Many Colours’, ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’, the author’s focus on songs such as ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’, ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’, ‘Down From Dover’ and ‘These Old Bones’ helps to shine a new light on some of the important, yet less mainstream songs within Dolly’s catalogue – I found ‘The Bridge’ to be a particularly haunting and resonant episode. 

By breaking down Dolly’s vast repertoire of recordings into key themes such as love, tragedy, Appalachian heritage and mountain identity, Hamessley is able to cover a wide range of Dolly’s music whilst also drawing parallels across songs from different albums and decades.

Traversing Dolly’s musical journey from her early mountain songs, the Porter duets, pop-crossover years and a foray into bluegrass, helps to encompass the plethora of emotions and feelings Dolly’s storytelling instils into her listeners; there’s heartbreak, passion, betrayal, inspiration, girl power and spirituality – after all, everyone can always find something they can relate to into at least one of Dolly’s songs!

I particularly liked was how well-researched this book was. With a foreword by Steve Buckingham (one of Dolly’s producers and friends) as well as personal communications to the author from Dolly herself, each reference adds credence and reliability to this passion-project and celebration of the true mastery and craftsmanship that Dolly puts into her song writing.   

I was hopeless at Music in school and often ended up being allocated the triangle or drum so that I could simply keep the beat whilst my friends came up with the different melodies and rhythms. Being written by a music professor, I was initially a little apprehensive that this book would be full of musical jargon which would go over the top of my very non-musical head! Whilst there are paragraphs dedicated to modes and rhythm styles which will appeal to musical scholars and country music historians, there was still plenty of discussion about the content and meaning behind the songs for me to enjoy. There’s also the biographical details and tidbits of Dolly’s life-story which complement the musical narratives to make this an immersive read.

As a huge Dolly Parton (and country music) fan, this was exactly the type of book I have been waiting to read to find out more about the songs of the Queen of Country. It has definitely whetted my appetite and served as a good starter for the forthcoming and eagerly anticipated ‘Dolly Parton, Storyteller: My Life in Lyrics’ audiobook that is coming out later this year.
But the thing I loved the most about Unlikely Angel is the ardent way that Hamelessly goes beyond the hair, make-up and rhinestone-bedazzled ‘cartoon’ of Dolly Parton and takes a deep-dive into paying tribute to and showcasing the workings of an incredibly talented and gifted songwriter – which for most fans, is the real reason why we’ll always love her.

Why Should I Read This?

For: an exploration into the creativity and songwriting talents of a musical icon.
For: an insight into the inspirations and stories behind some of Dolly’s most well-known songs.
For: a well-researched look into how country music has been shaped by one of its most talented composers and artists.

You don’t need to be a Dolly Parton fan to enjoy this book – anyone with an interest in the history of country music or someone with a curiosity as to how composers go about their songwriting processes will find something to enjoy here… But for any fans of Dolly Parton and her music, this ode to her creative ingenuity and discography of timeless songs is an absolute must-read!

Find out more about this book here:

Amazon | University of Illinois Press | Waterstones | Lydia Harmlessly on Twitter | NetGalley

Connect with me here:

Twitter | Goodreads | Book Sloth: @thebiblioshelf |Email: thebiblioshelf@gmail.com

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