Dolly's Star Continues To Rise | Music Reviews

A persuasive argument for taking Parton seriously as an artist; a thoughtful musing on the significance of Parton’s work and success, and those she inspires

Lydia R. Hamessley's Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly PartonHamessley, Lydia R. 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.—Genevieve Williams, Pacific ­Lutheran Univ. Lib., Tacoma

Smarsh, Sarah. She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs. Scribner. Oct. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781982157289. $22. MUSIC
In early April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam, country singer Dolly Parton donated one million dollars to Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to support coronavirus research. It wasn’t her first gift to VUMC, and it was far from the first time she’d donated funds to a cause she deemed important. Yet a moderately viral Tweet declared, "It sounds like a gag." As Smarsh (Heartland) makes clear, such reactions to Parton’s generosity aren’t uncommon—as are similar responses to her music, her brand, and, in particular, her physical appearance. Despite that, Parton’s decades-long career boasts an impressive talent, a strategic business acumen, and a large and diverse fan base, many of whom would otherwise claim to dislike country music. That kind of popularity is rare, especially for a musical genre frequently treated with derision. Part memoir, part tribute, the book is less about Parton’s music than her identity and how she has embraced and uplifted it to the inspiration of many. Smarsh’s insightful reflections on her experiences growing up in poverty on a Kansas farm are a springboard to discuss feminism, gender, sexuality, class, and race from an angle that is often ignored. VERDICT A thoughtful musing on the significance of Parton’s work and success, and those she inspires.—Genevieve Williams, Pacific Lutheran Univ. Lib., Tacoma

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