The course is a thesis seminar meant for history students in the honors program, and it’s meant to give students a new way of understanding Appalachia’s history and Dolly Parton’s role in it.
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 honors program, and it’s meant to give students a new way of understanding Appalachia’s history and Parton’s role in it.
“It’s really kind of a nerdy class,” she said.
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The second thing you need to know is that for many natives of eastern Tennessee, Parton, 71, is known for much, much more than music. She is an icon for a place that outsiders can sometimes underestimate, said Carson Hollingsworth, 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 fall, gained attention when Parton tweeted about it last week.
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 midcentury 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 labor 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 a child when she started singing at local television and radio stations. She moved to Nashville, Tennessee, 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 Center Honors 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 ardor 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 region, pulling millions of visitors annually to the Smoky Mountains.
“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, tasseled 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 program, 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 $1,000 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 percent 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.”