The “Always” Love Between Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

The mentor-mentee relationship has always been historically significant, from the student-teacher bond to entertainment, sports, and any other professional field. The connection is also the essence of the relationship between country stars Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Today, fans think of Parton as the quintessential solo artist, able to write her own songs, songs for others, and collaborate with whomever she wishes. But before she was a household name, she was the protege of music and television personality, Wagoner.

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The duo boasts 13 studio albums from 1968 to 1980 and while their time together was significant, their eventual split in the mid-’70s was the catalyst for the Parton hit, “I Will Always Love You.”

Porter Wagoner

Born on August 12, 1927, Porter Wagoner was a struggling musician until about 1953, when one of his songs (“Trademark”) became a country radio hit for artist Carl Smith.

By 1955, Wagoner began charting songs he sang, including the No. 1 country hit “A Satisfied Mind” in 1955 all the way to “Making Plans” in 1980, which hit No. 2. In total, he boasts 81 songs that hit the country charts.

In 1960, his syndicated television show, The Porter Wagoner Show, began to air. The show’s popular first duet partner, Norma Jean, was replaced by Parton in 1967. At first, the Pigeon Forge-born singer wasn’t a fan favorite but the two worked at it and Parton was accepted by the audience.

In fact, Parton’s career at this time, other than the support she received from Wagoner, was marked with significant struggle. Before meeting Wagoner, Parton was pushed to fit the bubblegum pop role, which she tried with little success. She eventually was allowed to write and record country songs, which was her dream all along. Soon after, her compositions, as performed by her, “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy,” charted. Parton released her debut LP, Hello, I’m Dolly, in 1967.

The Porter Wagoner Show

That same year, 1967, Wagoner recruited Parton to join his popular television show. The weekly program featured interviews, banter, jokes, and, of course, performances of country songs. All of a sudden, Parton had a prime slot to showcase her stuff and her smile to the world.

Not only did Wagoner put Parton on the show but he got her signed to his label, RCA Victor. Their first single together was a rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” It was released in 1967 and was a top 10 country hit in early 1968. It was the first of many hits as a duet pair for Wagoner and Parton.

The problem was, Parton’s solo stuff at this time wasn’t earning nearly the same attention. For years, in fact, her songs barely made traction, including her song “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” which has since become a country standard. Nevertheless, Parton and Wagoner were full steam ahead, winning Vocal Group of the Year at the CMAs in 1968.

The 1970s

Things began to turn around for Parton, though, after Wagoner suggested she record “Mule Skinner Blues,” a song that showcased Parton’s sense of humor, drama, and powerful voice, including her skill for yodeling. The idea bore fruit, hitting No. 3 on the country chart. This began a string of hits for Parton.

In 1971, Parton released her hit single, “Coat of Many Colors,” and the song hit No. 4 on the chart. Two years later, in 1973, Parton released another successful song, “Jolene.” The song hit No. 1 on the country chart in early 1974.

The Split

It was around the time of “Jolene” in 1974 when Parton was ready to go out on her own, and split from her mentor, Wagoner.

It wasn’t an easy decision and she thought he’d be upset. The two had such success together as duet performers and he wouldn’t want to split from her just as her star was really rising. But it was what she needed to do. The mentee had grown up.

The duo’s last duet concert was in April of 1974 and a few months later, Parton was no longer on the show. The two recorded their last album together in 1975, Say Forever You’ll Be Mine (though a record of rarities was released in 1980).

“I Will Always Love You”

To make the split more bearable, Parton composed a song for her professional partner and now former mentor. That song was the American classic, “I Will Always Love You,” which has since been made even more successful by Whitney Houston, whose version hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart and has since been certified diamond.

The song, which Parton wrote about needing her independence but about always cherishing her time and mentorship with Wagoner, hit No. 1 on the country chart. It was so good, Elvis Presley wanted to cover it but Parton declined when Presley’s manager demanded 50% of the publishing rights.

The farewell song will always be a marker of Parton’s love for Wagoner, who passed away in 2007, and it will forever remind listeners of their time together.

If I should stay
I would only be in your way
So I’ll go but I know
I’ll think of you every step of the way

Bittersweet memories –
That is all I’m taking with me
So good-bye
Please don’t cry:
We both know I’m not what you, you need

And I will always love you
I will always love you

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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