The course, which was taught for the first time last year and will be taught again in the fall, gained attention when Ms. Parton herself tweeted about it last week.
Through her representatives, Ms. Parton declined an interview.
According to Dr. 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 Ms. Parton, “a poor white girl born in midcentury Appalachia.”
It has a wealth of reading materials, including Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 right after high school to pursue a music career. In 1974, she scored four number one 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.
Dr. Sacco, who is from Chicago and moved to Tennessee in 2004, said she was struck by the ardor of Ms. Parton’s fan base in Tennessee. “She is beloved here,” she said. “If she would run for governor, no one would oppose her.”
Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. Parton changed into a tailor-made, figure-hugging black robe to accept her…