Unlikely Angel – The Songs of Dolly Parton coming in October

Another volume in the series, Women Composers, is the forthcoming Unlikely AngelThe Songs of Dolly Parton, to be published by the University of Illinois Press in October 2020. 

This is what the University of Illinois Press has to say about Unlikely Angel ….

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 song-writing 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. 

Renowned bluegrass-country artist Alison Krauss has expressed her enthusiasm for this book …. 

I’m so excited about the book Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton spotlighting Dolly’s unmatched gift as a songwriter. Always honoring and forgiving, Dolly shines only the best light on circumstances that would’ve taken the rest of us out. She’s the hero who continues to encourage those who wanted change or wished to go back, bringing to life a part of the country and an existence most of us didn’t know or understand, all while making hard living seem like heaven on earth. Her magical combination of heart and genius is a most awe-inspiring thing to witness, having a beauty and delivery like no other. Dolly’s tales of family, faith, and romance have created an American treasure who has continued to enrapture the world for decades. What a gift for us to see life through hers.

Jocelyn R. Neal, author of Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History, shares this insight …. 

Lydia Hamessley invites us on a deep dive into the world of Dolly Parton as songwriter.  The book weaves together insightful analyses of the musical forms, cultural roots, and meanings found in Parton’s vast catalog, with Parton’s own accounts of her music.  Hamessley unveils these songs as the heart and substance of Parton’s contributions to popular culture, and will inspire every reader to take yet another listen.

Professor Hamessley provides her thoughts on Parton as a songwriter from a traditional music viewpoint … 

I love bluegrass and old-time music. I play old-time music and am a clawhammer banjo player, and I’m a musicologist. In listening to some of Dolly’s music, I could hear traces of traditional mountain music styles in her songs (even those that don’t seem to be particularly Appalachian on the surface), and I was fascinated to learn more. I was able to ask her about details regarding the music she grew up hearing (fiddle and banjo tunes; ballads), and she told me a great story about hearing the folk hymn Wayfaring Stranger as a child. She once said that when she was growing up, all the music they heard and played — old-time, bluegrass, early country — blended together and they just called it all mountain music.

If your readers already know a bit about Dolly’s bluegrass songs, they will know about the albums The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, and Halos and Horns. All three include bluegrass and old-time music on them – and they’re really examples of what she meant by mountain music and the way those styles blend. The first two albums include players like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Dan Tyminski, Jim Mills, Darrin and Rhonda Vincent, Chris Thile, Barry Bales, and Alison Krauss. Little Sparrow features more old-time music than the others, but they’re all indebted to the Appalachian musical tradition that Dolly grew up immersed in.

The Grass Is Blue includes her cover of I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open (Flatt & Scruggs) and the old ballad Silver Dagger. Several of her songs on that album are also great bluegrass numbers: Steady as the Rain is a real stand-out as is Will He Be Waiting For Me. And the title song, The Grass Is Blue, is a wonderful bluegrass waltz and a really top-notch song, complex and compelling.

Little Sparrow includes two really terrific bluegrass covers of Shine and Seven Bridges Road. And her songs, Little Sparrow, Mountain Angel, Down from Dover are very much indebted to the old-time mountain style.

People should check out the following songs (which are less likely to be known since they aren’t on her albums that are more generally known as bluegrass like the three I just mentioned above):

      • The Camel’s Heart, and Time and Tears, from Hungry Heart, 1998
      • Blue Smoke, from Blue Smoke, 2014
      • Unlikely Angel, from Blue Smoke, 2014

If they don’t already know it, they should listen to Dolly’s version of Mule Skinner Blues on The Best of Dolly Parton, 1970. as well as the albums she did with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, Trio (1987) and Trio II (1999). The Trio albums are more old-time country rather than bluegrass, but they’re really terrific. Finally, her album Heartsongs: Live From Home (1995) has a lot of old-time, mountain music on it (Barbara Allen, Wayfaring Stranger, In the Pines, I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes).

If listeners poke around a bit, they will find that Dolly goes back to her mountain music roots (old-time, bluegrass, early country) in a lot of her songs and albums in one way or another.

Publication of Unlikely Angel is supported by a grant from the Judith McCulloh Endowment for American Music. 


Cloth: 978-0-252-04352-9 – $125.00
Paper: 978-0-252-08542-0 – $19.95
312 pages
Illustrations: 30 black & white photographs, two music examples, six tables
Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 in.

Lydia R. Hamessley is a professor of music at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.