Project of many colors: MTSU composers reimagine the works of Dolly Parton

Nov 21, 2016


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (RHIANNON GILBERT) -- The songs of country legend Dolly Parton are inspiring a project at MTSU’s School of Music, but the sound is not at all what you might expect.

“Inspirations from Tennessee,” a 7-track CD of chamber music commissioned by MTSU music faculty and graduates, is set to release in January 2017. Simply called “The Dolly Project,” it aims to unite different art forms and histories of Tennessee through self-expression in music.

Deanna Little, professor of flute music and the organizer of the project, says she selected Dolly Parton as an influence because she is an icon of Tennessee culture and the songwriting legacy of the state.

“I was searching around for a Tennessee poet to start with, and I just really didn’t find one that I connected with,” Little said. “Then one day, it kind of dawned on me to use a Tennessee songwriter because there are plenty of songwriters in Tennessee. So, the idea of using Dolly Parton came to mind.”

Little asked seven composers to select a piece of Parton’s music and create a new work for flute. Six of the composers used the song “Coat of Many Colors,” to influence their compositions. Professor of music Paul Osterfield drew inspiration from Parton’s children’s book “I Am a Rainbow.” According to Little, Osterfield chose that book because he reads it with his 5-year-old daughter, who will be the CD’s narrator.

Translating country music into a classical format is a unique concept that Little says came together nicely.

“I actually was really pleasantly surprised by the different flavors of the music,” Little said. “For instance, one piece is very folkey, and one a little bit more bluesey. There is a little pop influence, and some of them [are] more jazzy. I feel like the program is all what I would call audience-friendly and easy to listen to.”

Little is taking the teaching year at half-time to travel around to other universities and perform the program for their music students. Her goal is to demonstrate that art of all kinds enriches our shared cultural experience, and that new forms of expression can be born when you bend the rules a little bit.

“I just thought there’s a lot of great different kinds of art going on here,” Little said. “And yes, the roots are in country music, but I don’t see why the different styles can’t overlap and connect.”

“Inspirations from Tennessee” is funded through an MTSU Faculty Research and Creative Project grant.