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:

#BookTag – Taylor Swift Folklore Tag

It’s TuesTAG time,

This album…!!! 😍 By far my favourite music to have come out of this crazy pandemic. To me, this is Swift at her musical best; don’t get me wrong I enjoy the more poppy upbeat songs but I feel like Folklore lets her songwriting and musical genius really shine.

I found this little tag whilst browsing on iheartlandx’s bookloversblog and knew that I just had to do it!
Here are the rules for the tag:

  • Link to the original creator: Ilsa @ A Whisper Of Ink
  • Tag at least 3 people.
  • Declare the rules and list of prompts in your post
  • Thank whoever who tagged you and link to their post.

Taylor Swift
Book Tag

The 1: a book with an ending that left you speechless

The Wicked King by Holly Black – that cliffhanger had me desperate for the final book and I had really had to discuss it with someone but none of my friends had read it – ergo… speechless!

cardigan: a book that makes you feel happy and sad all at once

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green – I can’t really explain why. It just gives me both happy and sad vibes but I can’t pinpoint exactly which part about it makes me feel that way. I listened to it on audiobook and thought the narrator sounded automated, that may have had something to do with it…

the last great american dynasty: a book with a fascinating and well told story

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – I was gripped from start to finish. I’d happily live inside that book! It’s not like anything I’ve ever read before or since to be honest.

exile: a book you wish you hadn’t read

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis – I had quite high expectations as I had heard lots of good things about the author but reading this felt like I had literally wasted hours of my life. It is definitely not a book for me!

my tears ricochet: a book that made you cry uncontrollably

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – surely this needs no explanation?!

mirrorball: a book that feels like it was written for you

I always say this about my horoscopes… they are scarily accurate! I honestly haven’t come across a book that feels like it was actually written for me yet. 

seven: a childhood book that makes you feel nostalgic

The BFG and Matilda by Roald Dahl – my Grandpa bought me the books from a car boot sale and Dahl fast became my favourite storyteller after that.

august: a book that reminds you of summer

Summer at the Lake by Erica James – I found it on a bookshelf at our hotel in Cape Verde and read it out there on the beach. Part of it is based in Italy where I spent another amazing summer so it gives me all the holiday vibes!

this is me trying: a book that deals with loneliness and sadness

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – the character is just crafted with such a vulnerability. It was a really moving book.

illicit affairs: a book that gave you a book hangover

The Harry Potter series – finishing that final page and knowing that I could never ‘unknow’ how it all ended… it put me into the biggest book hangover or reading slump of my life!

invisible string: a book that came into your life at the exact right time

Remember This When You’re Sad by Maggie Van Eijk – it was the wake-up call I needed.

mad woman: a book with a female character you adore

Romanov by Nadine Brandes – her portrayal of Anastasia was so divine, she wrote a brilliant character. I cried so much at the ending and wished that this story could have been Anastasia’s actual ending as opposed to the harsh reality.

epiphany: a book that is haunting

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck or Room by Emma Donoghue – they both leave me with the chills for different reasons. Room because it’s horrifying to think of what Jack and his Ma went through. Then Of Mice and Men because, Lennie! It’s a sad reality of our world that people like Lennie still get treated differently today because of misconceptions surrounding their disabilities. In a way that’s more haunting to me than ghost stories.

betty: a book couple that fills you with yearning

Do I have to say Rhys and Feyre again – it seems I pick them for everything couple related?!
OK Rhys and Feyre for all of the feels or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy for the good old fashioned romance!

peace: a book character you’d die for because you love them so much

Aragorn from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I’d be his Arwen and toodle on over to Middle Earth any day!

hoax: a book you thought you were going to love but didn’t

Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin – this had so much hype about it and was touted as the witchy story we’d all been waiting for, but I really didn’t feel it – the cinnamon buns sounded delicious though!

That’s the Folklore book tag! Thanks so much to Ilsa for creating it! If you’re a big Folklore fan then consider yourself tagged and have a go yourself!

Have you listened to Folklore yet? What are your favourite songs? Is Betty really the name of Blake Lively and Ryan Gosling’s third daughter… Will we ever know? 😂 As always, drop me a comment to chat or leave your links to your own tags and I’ll be sure to check them out!

T xx