Book Review: The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: Getting to Know Country’s “Iron Butterfly”
Over the past five decades, Dolly Parton has been half musical genius, half savvy businesswoman, and half film/television star. That’s three halves, but Dolly Parton has always been larger than life. Nancy Cardwell’s The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: Getting to Know Country’s “Iron Butterfly” goes past the iconic, internationally-known image of Dolly to take an extensive look at Parton’s history, lyrics and music in a way that few, if any, writers have done before in such detail.
This volume is the newest addition to The Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection, a series of books on artists such as Paul McCartney, Prince, David Bowie, and others “who have been active from approximately the 1960s through the present. Musicians who write and record in folk, rock, soul, hip-hop, country, and various hybrids of these styles are represented.”
Parton was not available to be interviewed for the book; however, Cardwell culls from numerous interviews, biographies, and liner notes as well as conducts her own interviews with important figures throughout Parton’s career like Fred Foster of Monument Records, who signed Dolly shortly after her arrival in Nashville in 1964. In some ways, perhaps Parton’s unavailability benefits the book, as it makes Parton’s songwriting, the characters therein, and Cardwell’s analysis of the lyrics the text’s focal point. The discussion of Parton’s music, while interesting, isn’t nearly as extensive as the lyrical analysis. While Cardwell does discuss Parton’s crossover hits and her bluegrass albums and occasionally delves into details such as Parton’s use of the “one to seven chord progression…creating an introspective, lonesome-edged effect that she uses in a number of…songs” such as “Me and Joshua,” such moments are fleeting, though Parton’s skill as a composer of music is as important to her work as her songwriting ability.
Woven throughout the book are memories relayed by Parton’s acquaintances, like Grascal Jamie Johnson’s recollections of her home-cooked meals and time spent in the studio with her; these moments help flesh out Parton as a person behind the music and movies: a hardworking, smart, and kind woman who hasn’t let her successes define her.
Chronologically organized, with each self-contained chapter beginning with a list of songs discussed therein and a complete discography as well as a list of awards and honors Parton has received over the course of her career, The Words and Music of Dolly Parton can easily be used as a reference text, though reading straight through is highly recommended. Although the book’s price—currently $44.95 on Amazon ($31.69 on Kindle)—may deter all but the most dedicated Dollyphiles, it’s definitely worth a trip to the local library.
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