Book Review: Unlikely Angel – The Songs of Dolly Parton

Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton
Author: Lydia R. Hamessley
Genre: Biography, Music, Nonfiction
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Published: September 16, 2020
Rating: ★★★★

I think of country radio like a great lover. You were great to me, you bought me a lot of nice things and then you dumped my ass for younger women.

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.

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This was a really fascinating book. I am not particularly a huge fan of Dolly Parton, other than liking some of her biggest hits like “9 to 5”, “Here You Come Again”, and her duets with Kenny Rogers, so I enjoyed reading about her background but I really enjoyed diving deep into the meanings of her songs.

The book starts out with a synopsis of Dolly’s life and then a chapter by chapter deeper look into her songs. It is actually a very technical book and probably best suited for a musician, songwriter, or a hardcore Dolly Parton fan. Although, I am none of those, I really enjoyed it. I especially liked the stories behind the songs “Coat of Many Colors”, “Jolene”, and “I Will Always Love You.”

My main takeaway from this book is that Dolly is an extremely talented songwriter, who truly doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Overall, it was an entertaining book, which is why I gave it 4 stars, and a must read for any Dolly Parton fan.

Thank you to Netgalley for the providing me an eARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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