Porter Wagoner is often referred to as “Mr. Grand Ole Opry.” He had dozens of country hits through his five-decade career and he helped launch one of country music’s biggest superstars: Dolly Parton.
On Parton’s new A&E biography special, a lot of time is devoted to her stint on The Porter Wagoner Show, a syndicated country music program from the 1960s and 1970s that really put her on the map. Here’s what you need to know about Parton and Wagoner’s partnership and which one of her famous songs is about him.
1. Porter Wagoner Was a Successful Country Artist With a TV Show
Porter Wagoner was born in Missouri in 1927. He and his first band got started playing on the local radio, which eventually led to a contract with RCA Victor in 1951. He had a few hits for them and moved to Nashville in 1957 to join the Grand Ole Opry. After just a few years there, Wagoner got his own syndicated television show, The Porter Wagoner Show, which aired from 1960 to 1981.
Wagoner was known for his signature look that included brightly-colored, rhinestone-studded suits and a blonde pompadour. Over the course of his career, he had 29 Top 10 country hits, including “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Skid Row Joe” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
At the height of its popularity, his show was reaching 100 markets and 3.5 million viewers a week, according to Wagoner’s obituary in the New York Times. For the first five years, the show featured performances by Wagoner and his partner, Norma Jean Beasler, plus comedic interstitials from Gilbert Ray “Speck” Rhodes. Beasler left the show in 1965 and was replaced by Jeannie Seely. Seely left after just one year and Wagoner set out auditioning a number of women to be his new partner: Dottie West, Connie Smith, and Tammy Wynette. Then he discovered Dolly Parton.
2. Wagoner Discovered Parton Two Years After She Came to Nashville
In 1967, Parton had been in Nashville for two years and had had a couple of successful records in “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy,” so Wagoner didn’t “discover” Parton in the traditional sense. She had already been working and that’s how she made it onto his radar. But Wagoner hiring her as his on-screen partner was what really made her career take off.
Wagoner invited Parton to perform on his show for the first time in September 1967, according to Parton’s official website, and the rest is history. Fans loved their chemistry and the show quickly became the No. 1 syndicated show in America.
Wagoner passed away from lung cancer in 2007, so he couldn’t be interviewed for A&E’s 2020 biography about Parton, but the show did get access to footage of him talking about working with her in a 2002 interview.
“Dolly had such a unique voice, her voice was in the higher register. A brilliant songwriter, that really sold me on Dolly too. So we just kind of hit it off from that moment on,” said Wagoner.
3. They Had a String of Hits Together
Parton and Wagoner often performed duets on the show and between 1968 and 1980, they charted 21 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Singles off of their 13 studio albums.
Their biggest hits included “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “We’ll Get Ahead Someday,” “Just Someone I Used to Know,” “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine,” and “Making Plans,” all of which charted in the Top 10 on the U.S. country charts.
They were also named Vocal Duo of the Year twice and Vocal Group of the Year once by the Country Music Association and given the Vocal Duet of the Year three times by the Music City News Country. They were also nominated for four Grammys for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, though they never won.
However, over the years, Parton started to become bigger than the man whose name was on the show and that started to create tension between them.
4. She Was Always Second Fiddle
On Parton’s A&E biography, one of her Nashville session musicians, Wayne Moss, says that Parton was a huge asset to The Porter Wagoner Show, but she eventually outgrew it.
“She was an asset to Porter’s TV show and his records up until the point that she was getting other stuff form other producers and other record companies to do stuff and make movies and all that, which Porter didn’t have anything to do with,” says Moss. “I think it reached a point where Dolly was getting more fan mail than he was, so I think she outgrew the need for his coaching.”
In the footage of Wagoner talking about Parton, he acknowledged that they would argue sometimes, but he “always won” because he was “the one that signed the checks.”
“I started trying to move myself away, started talking to him and he wasn’t hearing of it, so we fought a lot because we were very similar, we were very headstrong. He knew what he wanted and I knew what I wanted and we were both gonna get it,” says Parton.
5. Parton Wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ for Wagoner
Parton and Wagoner’s accounts of how “I Will Always Love You” came about differ, but the bottom line is that Parton wrote the song at the end of her partnership with him.
Wagoner claimed that he told Parton she needed to “write a song about the most identifiable subject on earth — love.” So she left and came back two days later with “I Will Always Love You,” which he told her at the time, “Dolly, that song will make you more money and more fame than all the other songs put together.”
Parton maintains she wrote the song as a response to the fact that Wagoner was no longer listening to her and she needed to make a break.
“‘I Will Always Love You’ is that signature song that when I was leaving The Porter Wagoner Show, trying to make sense of that [idea of] ‘I appreciate you and I wish you well and I thank you for loving me and all that, but I’ve gotta go,” says Parton.
Parton’s biographer Lydia Hamessley adds, “I think Dolly’s version of the events are more likely to be true, which is that she was trying to make a break from Porter, he wouldn’t listen and the only way she could get through to him was to write a song.”
But the two of them parted amicably and remained friends. In a 2016 interview with Closer Weekly, Wagoner’s daughter Debra said, “To this day, Dolly is family. She is the person who has been there for us on all the most important days of our lives. … She came to our dad’s bedside two hours before he passed away. It meant everything in the world to us as family for her to share that time.”
The Dolly Parton A&E biography airs Sunday, April 12 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., followed by Willie Nelson: American Outlander, a special concert that pays tribute to Nelson’s seven-decades-long career.