Q&A with Lydia R. Hamessley, Author of Unlikely Angel

Unlikely Angel cover

Lydia R. Hamessley, author of Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton, answers questions about her inspirations, Appalachian music, songwriting, and, of course, music legend Dolly Parton.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Laurie Matheson, the Director of the University of Illinois Press, invited me to write a book on Dolly Parton for the Women Composer Series. I recall she said it was Judith McCulloh’s idea to have the first two books of the series push the boundaries a bit: she had hoped they’d be on Hildegard of Bingen and Dolly Parton. Well, we didn’t make the first two books for the series, but Honey Meconi’s book on Hildegard came out in 2018, and now mine is finally published!

I believe Laurie tapped me for the book because of my scholarship on Appalachian old-time and bluegrass music that focuses on women. I jumped at the chance to write a book on Dolly Parton. I’ve loved her and her music since I was a kid, and I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to get to know her music so deeply. Dolly has been my daily companion now for many years.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

As I wrote the book, I realized how many threads of my life—music I’d listened to for years and people I’d learned from—were coming together and informing the way I understood Dolly’s songs, particularly those that flow from her Appalachian musical heritage. I took up the clawhammer banjo almost 25 years ago (after having listened to folk, traditional, and bluegrass music for years), and learning that instrument brought me into the vibrant community of old-time music. I’ve learned so much about Appalachian music from people who have lived and played in those communities for most, if not all, of their lives.

Sheila Kay Adams, a 7th-generation ballad singer and storyteller, invited me into the world of Appalachian balladry through her powerful performances. I also spent a day with her stringing up pole beans at her mountain homeplace in western North Carolina, and the exhaustion and sunburn I got in that beautiful setting gave me a very tiny but meaningful glimpse into the lives of the singers and players whose music I’d been studying.

Sheila, and many others, taught me about the legacy of banjo and fiddle music in Appalachia: Riley Baugus, Paul Brown, Dwight Diller, Cathy Fink, Bruce Molsky, Amber and Jim Mueller, and Ron Pen, to name just a few. And while writing the book, I was greatly influenced by Steve Buckingham, one of Dolly’s closest friends and a producer of twenty of her albums. He not only granted me an extensive interview; he also visited my classes at Hamilton College twice and paved the way for my contact with Dolly. He shared so much about his work with Dolly, and the book benefited immensely by his input and generosity with his time and stories.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

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Lydia R. Hamessley is a professor of music at Hamilton College.

It was the moment I realized Dolly’s song “Unlikely Angel” was her revision of an earlier song of hers, “More Than I Can Say.” I knew and really liked the latter song, which is a kind of pop, slow romantic ballad with lush orchestral string accompaniment. One afternoon I was listening to “Unlikely Angel,” and when the chorus began, it was like the world around me just stopped. I froze in place, wracking my brain for why the song sounded so familiar.

When Dolly began to sing the lyrics “unlikely angel,” the penny dropped, and I heard it: “Unlikely Angel” was an old-timey acoustic re-working of that earlier song! It was a truly magical moment for me. But this is just one example of what I came to discover about Dolly in her songwriting workshop.

She often returns to earlier lyrics and tunes and crafts something original from them. For instance, I have a section in the book that examines the way she drew on the folk hymn “Wayfaring Stranger” for four of her songs (including one of my favorites, “Only Dreamin’”). And she does it with a fresh, innovative approach so that listeners might not immediately hear that connection between songs. The inner musicologist nerd in me finds that facet of her songwriting just fascinating, and I’ve tried to convey that feeling of excitement in the book where I discuss Dolly’s songwriting process.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel, or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

Perhaps ten years ago, I might have said that I wanted people to stop thinking about Dolly only as her image and just two or three songs (usually “9 to 5” and “Jolene”—both terrific songs!). I do think now people understand that Dolly is much, much more than the image she projects, and many folks are aware of her philanthropic efforts, particularly the Imagination Library. However, as I’ve presented my research on Dolly in various contexts, I’ve had many people tell me that they had never thought of her as a songwriter, and many continue to think of her simply as the hyper-feminine, exaggerated image she projects. I’ve spent so much time with her music, and reading and listening to her talk about her music, that I don’t really “see” that image anymore. So, it’s a jolt to be reminded that so many people still only think of this image when you mention Dolly to them. I want readers to unlearn this initial response to Dolly and to replace it with the thought, “wow, Dolly is an incredible, sensitive, creative songwriter.”

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

Well, this builds on what I just said. I want people to have a sense of what a gifted and prolific songwriter Dolly is. As I say in the book’s Preface, my study of Dolly’s music has been guided by two of her statements. First, “I can’t stop writing songs. That’s what I mean—I am so serious. If people really knew how serious I was about my music.” Second, Dolly once remarked, “I’m saying a lot more in my songs than a lot of people may know. Even the simplest of my songs, I’ve got really deep feelings inside of them.”

What I hope readers will take away from my book is a sense of the scope of Dolly’s songs. She’s written over 3,000 and has recorded over 450. So people will have a chance to learn about a broad range of songs that are relatively unknown, but that is really compelling and beautiful. And from there, I want readers to gain an understanding of the depth of Dolly’s songwriting and how those seemingly simple songs convey their deep feelings. Most of Dolly’s songs are not autobiographical, though they are all drawn from her personal observations, and in them are traces of Dolly’s upbringing and her Appalachian musical heritage.

Her songs across her 60-year career have many common threads of imagery, situations, emotions, and ideas, and these messages coalesce as she returns to them again and again in newly creative ways. I want readers to have a sense of the larger ideas that Dolly reveals in her songs—what she has to say, for instance, about poverty, spirituality, women’s lives, and relationships. I also really want people to understand how Dolly’s musical settings of her brilliant lyrics create the messages and feelings she wishes to convey.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I watch a lot of British TV shows, from murder mysteries and The Great British Baking Show to Hidden Villages and The Crown. Sally Wainwright is an incredible writer of quality television that features strong, fully-realized women characters, and I watch everything she’s done: Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, and my favorite, Gentleman Jack about Anne Lister. Lister kept detailed journals of her daily life in early 19th-century West Yorkshire, including her extensive travels in the UK and Europe and her love affairs with women. She wrote about the latter subject in a code she devised in order to veil her identity as a lesbian. It’s a beautiful and captivating series about this complex woman, with a wonderful theme song and soundtrack.

I also enjoy watching classic films, and Turner Classic Movies channel is usually what my TV is tuned to. In addition to old-time and bluegrass music and Dolly’s songs, I enjoy Celtic music, works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Renaissance music, and songs by the Carpenters are a guilty pleasure that takes me back to high school. Usually, my favorite piece of music is the one I’m teaching that day. I enjoy reading microhistory books and academic and/or English murder mysteries. A book that I can read again and again, in its entirety or just random passages, is The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The film of that book was terrific (with a soundtrack by Philip Glass), but the book is even better! It’s filled with gems of wisdom and insight.

To listen to the songs featured in Hamessley’s book, check out our Unlikely Angel Spotify playlist.

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