Jobs of Tomorrow: Why Dolly Parton's Songs Are Perfect TV Script Inspiration

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Glenn Harvey
      

Lisa Melamed has spent 30 years as a writer and producer for classic TV series such as Sisters, Party of Five and Mad About You. But it’s safe to say her latest project is unlike any in her long list of credits. Melamed is a co-executive producer and writer for Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, an eight-part Netflix anthology series set to debut later in 2019, in which each segment is based on a different song by the country legend.

Heartstrings is one in a growing number of TV and film projects inspired directly by songs: Recently, The Chainsmokers revealed that a film adaptation of their 2017 single “Paris” was in the works, and John Mayer’s “The Heart of Life” (from 2006 album Continuum) is the basis for Heart of Life, an upcoming ABC drama Mayer himself will executive-produce.

Melamed, 60, who worked most closely on a Heartstrings episode based on Parton’s “Cracker Jack” -- a jaunty track from her 1974 Jolene LP about a scrappy pup Parton took in -- spoke about turning songs into compelling TV.

 


 

The project was dreamy. I’ve worked with showrunner Patrick Sean Smith and [Parton's] producing partner Sam Haskell in the past, so when they called and said, “We’re doing a show based on songs by Dolly Parton,” I was thrilled. The eight songs were already chosen by the time I was brought on. I chose “Cracker Jack” [because] I felt the themes suited me as a writer. We didn’t have to be literal; we didn’t have to follow the song line to line. We had to take in all of the Dolly-ness of it, and that’s a fantastic starting-off point for a writer.

One of the many amazing things about the experience was that we sat in a conference room with Dolly and spoke with her about each of the songs to make sure every episode would have the essence and the soul of what the song meant to her. When you sit in a room with Dolly Parton and talk about her songs, invariably she will start singing. Dolly told us [that] when she was a kid, one of the reasons she started writing songs was because they didn’t have television, they didn’t go to the movies. [Her] songs lend themselves to being movies because in her mind they were movies to begin with: She didn’t just hear the songs -- she saw them. There’s a lot of narrative in her songs, so it made perfect sense. She actually has said she sees this as an extension of her legacy, which is an incredible privilege to be part of. What a way to make a living.

This article originally appeared in the June 29 issue of Billboard.