Unlikely Angel

The Songs of Dolly Parton
Author: Lydia R. Hamessley
Foreword by Steve Buckingham
The creative process of a great American songwriter
Cloth – $125
Paper – $19.95
eBook – $14.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 10/12/2020
Cloth: 10/12/2020
Series: Women Composers
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About the Book

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.

* Publication supported by grants from the AMS 75 PAYS Endowment of the American Musicological Society andthe Judith McCulloh Endowment for American Music.

About the Author

Lydia R. Hamessley is a professor of music at Hamilton College. She writes on old-time and bluegrass music, with an emphasis on women and Southern Appalachia. She has also written about the banjo in nineteenth-century America; Appalachian murder ballads; and Peggy Seeger. She appeared in the BBC2 documentary Dolly Parton: Here I Am which aired in the U.S. as Biography: Dolly.


"Meticulously researched . . . The fine, affectionate attention Hamessley pays to Parton's music offers all sorts of revelations: the old-world strangeness of Parton's lyrical diction, the Appalachian roots of the stirringly beautiful chest voice she employs on her 2002 song 'These Old Bones,' or how much more eerie her critically maligned tearjerker 'Me and Little Andy' becomes when you consider it within the tradition of the ghost story." --Lindsay Zoladz, Bookforum

"Hamessley is especially attuned to the subtle ways in which Ms. Parton interweaves old and new musical strands—for instance, by ornamenting her verses with archaic flourishes and stock phrases from centuries-old ballads." --Wall Street Journal

"A persuasive argument for taking Dolly Parton seriously as an artist. For folk and country music scholars, musicians, and fans." --Library Journal

"Serious Dolly Parton fans and country music aficionados will be delighted by this in-depth gander into an icon's creative process. " --Booklist

"A dazzling close reading of Parton's songs and identity as a songwriter." --No Depression

"By examining [Dolly] thoroughly through her musical creations, author and music professor Lydia R. Hamessley gives a dynamic view of this remarkable star." --Bookreporter.com

"Detailed and savvy analysis of Parton's songwriting." --KCTV5

"What Hamessley adds to the current Dolly Parton cultural boom is a page-turning deep dive into Parton’s artistry, borne out in her choices as a composer and performer. Unlikely Angel insists on her complexity and seriousness as a songwriter, celebrating an indelible body of work." --Chapter 16

"Parton's world-class skills as a songwriter have never been the subject of such a precise and unique analysis as this. . . . Hats off to Hamessley for shining a light on the less familiar but perhaps most important aspects of the timeless artistry of Dolly Parton." --The Nashville Musician

"Recommended." --Choice

"Hamessley focuses on Dolly Parton's songwriting, paying specific attention to the music. . . . Unlikely Angel is a unique look at a globally iconic figure. . . . An in-depth discussion of songwriting and thematic analysis." --Journal of Appalachian Studies

"Dolly Parton herself has said numerous times that she wants to be taken seriously for her music, and this book, well written by a musical expert with academic credentials provides convincing proof that she deserves to be. . . . Not one of those puff pieces." --Visual Parables

"Lydia Hamessley's book Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton offers a welcome addition to the scholarly discussion of Parton's oeuvre." --Journal of American Folklore

"If you ever underestimated Dolly Parton, you will no longer once you read this enjoyable book." --Visual Parables

"This authoritative book will, no doubt, be a must-read for scholars and fans of Dolly Parton; its serious yet accessible tone ensures this. We might hope that pop/folk music critics, peddlers of tired old tropes, will also avail themselves of the essential knowledge to be found here." --Women and Music


"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."--Alison Krauss

“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.”--Jocelyn R. Neal, author of Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History


•  Audiobook (Tantor Media), Earphone Award Winner, AudioFile Magazine, 2021
• Winner, Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Book Award in Pop Music, ASCAP Foundation, 2022