Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

Univ. of Illinois. Oct. 2020. 296p. ISBN 9780252043529. $125; pap. ISBN 9780252085420. $19.95. MUSIC
As Hamessley (music, Hamilton Coll.) notes, country star Dolly Parton’s skill as a songwriter isn’t most people’s first impression of her. Yet, as the author also observes, it’s not possible for Parton to have had a career of such duration and crossover appeal if glitz and glam were all there were to her. Hamessley details Parton’s songwriting process, her favorite themes and lyrical tropes, and her storytelling prowess, which owes a great deal to the Appalachian musical culture that was key to Parton’s early musical development. The musicological analyses of some of Parton’s songs are fascinating; while lacking in formal training, Parton had a sophisticated, intuitive sense for what makes a good hook, melody line, or chord progression. Her songwriting is sometimes criticized as overly sentimental, even clichéd, but, again, if that were all there was to it, it’s doubtful her career would have been so influential. Besides, it’s hard to argue that inclusive emotional honesty is something the world needs less of right now.
VERDICT A persuasive argument for taking Dolly Parton seriously as an artist. For folk and country music scholars, musicians, and fans.
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