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

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton will be released October 12, 2020. Thanks to NetGalley for the Advanced Reader’s Copy.

When I was seven years old, my parents went to the movies. This was a huge deal. My parents didn’t go to movies. My six brothers and sisters and I did not go to the movies. So the event was burned into my memory. The movie they saw: 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. My mom couldn’t stop talking about the film to her friends and family on the phone, and that’s how Dolly Parton entered my life.

In the 1980’s, Dolly Parton had a variety show that I watched religiously. A year or two later she released Trio with Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt, who I already loved as an artist. I wore out my cassette by the time Trio II was released a few years later. Just recently, I caught Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings series on Netflix and added Ultimate Dolly Parton to our music collection. I’ve always enjoyed Dolly’s self-deprecating sense of humor and appreciated her great charitable acts.

If you are looking for a straight biography of Dolly Parton, Unlikely Angel isn’t it. To be sure, there’s plenty of biographical information on Dolly, and the author interviewed her subject via email and got many written responses which are included in the text.  And there are tons of stories included.  But this is the study of Dolly’s prolific songwriting career. And if you thought that Dolly was just a dolled-up singer and actress, this book dispels that myth pretty quickly.

“I’ve created this and played it up–the makeup, the whole persona. I’ve overexaggerated and made things worse. But I’ve had a good time doing it, and it all came from a serious place: a country girl’s idea of what glamour is. But this isn’t all I am. It’s not even most of what I am. Hopefully, people can see beneath the hair to know there’s a brain, beneath the boobs to know there’s a heart, and behind all the other stuff to know there’s some talent.”-Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton has written more than 3,000 songs and over 450 of them have been recorded since she first started recording in the late 1960’s.  Hamessley contends that Dolly has three principles that define Dolly’s songwriting:

  1. Dolly takes songwriting seriously
  2. She thinks her songwriting is based on instincts
  3. Dolly says her songwriting is “a God-given gift”

As stressed throughout the book, Dolly Parton wants to be seen as a songwriter first and foremost. All the other stuff, her singing, her acting, Dollywood, her fame, takes second place to the act that brought her all her success.

Unlikely Angel breaks down the songwriting process, the inspirations, starting with Dolly Parton’s impoverished upbringing in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, her years with Porter Wagner, and her solo career from country artist, to pop crossover artist, to bluegrass artist and beyond.  Even with plenty of quotes from Dolly and other sources, this is quite the technical read if you’re not a fan of actually making music. You’ve really got to be a musician to understand some of the stuff presented.

I appreciated the stories behind Coat of Many Colors, Jolene, and I Will Always Love You, among many other songs the book dissects. But if you’re looking for a straight biography of Dolly, I’d stick to her 1994 autobiography.

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