Writing the book on Dolly

After agreeing to write a book about musician Dolly Parton and doing some initial research, Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley reached the moment when she needed to make a deep dive. Parton’s 50-year (and counting) career includes dozens of albums, thousands of songs, plus TV shows, movies, businesses, and philanthropy. The mountain of material was overwhelming.

“So I thought, ‘Start with the music, go to the songs,’” Hamessley told herself. Parton has written more than 3,000 of them, and more than 450 have been recorded. The book offer came from University of Illinois Press, which approached Hamessley several years ago to write about Parton for a series about women composers. Superstar Parton is an Appalachian native who grew up in Locust Ridge, Tenn., in the Great Smoky Mountains. It made sense that the editor of the book series would turn to Hamessley, who plays clawhammer banjo and is a scholar of old-time and Appalachian music.

“I started out studying Renaissance music in grad school,” she says. “There’s a funny kind of similarity of sparseness and harmonic language between early music and old-time music — which in a way is also early music of the folk. So old-time music seemed somehow on the same continuum as Renaissance music, at least to me.”

A forerunner of bluegrass, old-time music is the string band music of English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants who settled in Appalachia, where their fiddle tunes and ballads mingled with elements of German and African music, including the banjo. Later, in the late 19th century, the guitar was introduced. In her book Hamessley examines Parton as an Appalachian mountain singer, and she considers Parton to be part of the old-time music tradition. “Yes, she’s a country singer and she crossed over into pop, but a lot of what I’m focusing on when I do my musical analysis is the way she’s indebted to her mountain heritage. Not only just her upbringing and values, but her musical mountain heritage,” she explains.

According to Parton’s official bio, she was the fourth of 12 children whose family was poor in worldly goods but rich in music. She released her first song in 1959 at age 13, later launching her career by teaming up with country star Porter Wagoner. Her greatest and enduring fame came through her solo work.

When Hamessley first pondered the book offer, she was a Parton fan but knew relatively little about her. In 2016, she immersed herself in Parton’s recorded music, starting with her solo albums. “I would do two or three albums a day, where I would listen to them and take notes on them to get the vibe. I just started marching through time with her,” Hamessley says. “And that took about a month to get through over 40 albums.”

At this point Hamessley is 95 percent done writing the book. What’s missing is an interview with the legend herself, but Hamessley is putting off contacting Parton until she’s absorbed many of the hundreds of available interviews. “I can’t presume to interview this woman if I haven’t done my homework. I don’t want to ask her a question that I could find out some other way. That takes you a long time to feel like that. And I do feel like that now,” Hamessley says.

She wants to know more about the music: What songs did Parton’s mother sing to her? Did she sing those songs herself? What did people think of the songs when she was growing up?

“I want people to understand Dolly a bit better through what I’m writing and to really go beyond ‘Jolene’ and ‘Islands in the Stream’ and ‘9 to 5,’ which I think are incredible pieces. But I want to open up this vast world of her music and all of the different styles and influences,” Hamessley says.

— Maureen A. Nolan

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