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9 to 5: Working with Dolly Parton


“That’s a woman at work,” Steve Buckingham, renowned music producer, said as he shared a photo of Dolly Parton from her first day of recording the album The Grass Is Blue. As Buckingham clicked through the images of himself, Parton, and the work they did together, the audience listened to the tales with the respect that Buckingham seemed to reserve for Parton. His talk on Feb. 26 offered a look into both the world of music production and Parton’s iconic career.

Lydia Hamessley, professor of music, invited Buckingham to speak at Hamilton after she started interviewing him for her book project, which focuses on the significance of Dolly Parton’s music. Hamessley stated that he provides her with information about the creation of songs, and sometimes Buckingham will pass questions along to Parton, who he said he usually talks to every week. While Buckingham presented, Hamessley played portions of songs to familiarize the crowd with his work and point out nuances within the songs themselves. She primarily highlighted songs from Heartsongs Live From Home and The Grass Is Blue, which Buckingham discussed at length.

For Heartsongs, Parton’s live album recorded at her theme park, Dollywood, Buckingham noted that Parton wanted to “pay tribute to her heritage,” featuring a mix of Parton’s songs and traditional Appalachian music. Buckingham, who developed the project with musicians like Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Jerry Douglas, said that the album aimed to show Parton’s Appalachian roots and the region’s musical descent from the music of places such as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

On a plane ride in 1999, Buckingham had casually suggested creating a “full-blown bluegrass” album to Parton, and the two later planned the album out over dinner. Eventually titled The Grass Is Blue, the album would go on to win a Grammy and earn its place in bluegrass history as one of the greats. The album’s success then inspired Buckingham and Parton to construct Little Sparrow, another bluegrass album that would enjoy its own success.

In addition to giving a talk to the general Hamilton community, Buckingham spoke to music technology students and gave an interview for Hamilton’s Jazz Archive, offering insight gained from decades spent producing over 350 albums. Altogether, Buckingham provided students, faculty, and staff with an overview of his life’s work, sharing his expertise and a sense of awe over his musical journey and achievements.

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