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Dolly Parton college course combines music, history and Appalachia pride

A new course called at the University of Tennessee’s main campus in Knoxville, is devoted to Parton’s life story and is meant to give students a new way of understanding Appalachia’s modern history and her role in it. ― Reuters picA new course called at the University of Tennessee’s main campus in Knoxville, is devoted to Parton’s life story and is meant to give students a new way of understanding Appalachia’s modern history and her role in it. ― Reuters picKNOXVILLE, April 21 — The first thing you need to know is that this is no easy elective. If you want to learn about country music superstar Dolly Parton, you’d better come prepared.

A course called Dolly’s America at the University of Tennessee’s main campus in Knoxville is devoted to the life story of Parton, who hails from nearby Sevier County in the eastern part of the state.

But this is much more than a surface-level study of a popular musician, said Lynn Sacco, the associate professor who teaches the course. It’s a thesis seminar meant for history students in the honours programme and it’s meant to give students a new way of understanding Appalachia’s modern history and Parton’s role in it.

“It’s really kind of a nerdy class,” she said.

The second thing you need to know is that for many natives of eastern Tennessee, Parton, 71, is known for much, much more than just music. She is an icon for a place that outsiders can sometimes underestimate, said Carson Hollingsworth, the student body president at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

“I think there are some stereotypes associated with the area, especially in rural Appalachia,” he said. “I think it’s great that we have a figure like Dolly Parton who comes from the area and is able to shed light on it and be an ambassador.”

The course, which was taught for the first-time last year and will be taught again in the autumn, gained attention last week when Parton commented on it on Twitter. “From the girl voted in High School ‘least likely to succeed’ this sure is a blessing!” she wrote.

Through her representatives, Parton declined an interview.

According to Sacco’s syllabus, the seminar looks at a history of the 20th century not from the vantage point of elites, but through the eyes of Parton, “a poor white girl born in mid-century Appalachia.”

It has a wealth of reading materials, including Parton’s own 1994 book, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, and a slew of contemporary articles from periodicals such as The Tennessee Magazine, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The New York Times. Their topics range from child labour in the early 20th century to the Kennedy-era Appalachian Regional Commission and modern economic anxiety in the region.

The syllabus also includes plenty of videos of historic footage from YouTube.

Parton, born to a poor family in Sevier County in 1946, was only a child when she started singing at local television and radio stations. She moved to Nashville, Tennessee, right after high school to pursue a music career. In 1974, she scored four No. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart — including Jolene and I Will Always Love You — and she hasn’t stopped, winning awards, for singing, songwriting and acting, that include Kennedy Centre Honours in 2006 and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2011.

Sacco, who is from Chicago and moved to Tennessee in 2004, said she was struck by the ardour of Parton’s fan base in Tennessee.

“She is beloved here,” she said. “If she would run for governor, no one would oppose her.”

Parton’s Dollywood theme park, about an hour’s drive from the Knoxville campus, is a popular attraction in the Smoky Mountains region.

“You want to feel like you’re doing something good,” Parton said to The Tennessean during a 2015 visit to the park. “I really feel proud as a citizen of this area, and just being a daughter of the hills here.”

The university, in particular, has close ties to the country star: It awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 2009.

During that ceremony, she took the stage in a sparkling, tasselled pink dress to perform songs and to give a commencement speech.

“I’m very grateful for my life, but if I had but one wish for you, it would be for you to dream more,” she said.

Then Parton changed into a tailor-made, figure-hugging black robe to accept her honorary degree.

Parton is also known for her philanthropic work. Some call her “The Book Lady” for her programme, called Imagination Library, which distributes free books through the mail to children.

As recently as December, she hosted a three-hour telethon to raise millions of dollars after a wildfire raged through Sevier County, killing 14. Parton promised US$1,000 (RM4,395) a month, for up to six months, to families displaced by the blaze.

“She did a lot of work with relief efforts here,” Hollingsworth said. “I’m not a big fan of country music, but I’m a big fan of her.”

The university said 87 per cent of its undergraduate population is from Tennessee.

“Using pop culture as a way to talk about how to use history sources was actually the goal of the course,” Sacco said. “But the personal part is for students to see that history is not just about dead presidents. It’s one way for them to tie in a lot of personal feelings about coming from East Tennessee, from Appalachia.” — The New York Times

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