Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
Country singer Porter Wagoner, who would have celebrated his 87th birthday Aug. 12, introduced country music to millions for more than two decades as the host of television’s The Porter Wagoner Show. Known for emotionally raw songwriting with lyrics inspired by his own hard childhood and troubled young adulthood, Wagoner had 29 Top 10 hits including “Skid Row Joe,” “Misery Loves Company” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
But Wagoner, who died in October 2007, was perhaps most well-known for his relationship with the singer Dolly Parton. The two partnered professionally for years, and Wagoner is often credited with having kick-started Parton’s career. Despite “ups” that spawned hit songs and “downs” that included angry lawsuits, the pair were close until the end of his life.
How the so-called “Thin Man from West Plains, Missouri,” joined forces with the “Smoky Mountain Songbird,” and the truth behind her best-known song, “I Will Always Love You,” are revealed in this Legacy.com remembrance:
The Porter Wagoner Show debuted on TV in black and white in 1960. The rhinestone-suit-clad singer with a high pompadour, sometimes called “Mr. Grand Ole Opry,” introduced new country acts and performed his own songs on the 30-minute weekly program. In 1967, his longtime vocal accompanist left the show and was replaced by Parton.
The new duo had 21 singles on the Billboard Hot Country chart within a few years, according to Billboard magazine. The hits included “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man” and “Just Someone I Used to Know.” Besides appearing on television together, they recorded several albums and toured the country. As Wagoner’s obituary by The New York Times notes, the duo “are seen as the forerunners of other country duets like those of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette and George Jones.”
In 1974, Parton decided she wanted a solo career. As she told Country Music Television in 2011, she and Wagoner had fought often during their years together, with each wanting to set the duo’s course.
“So … there was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going. …,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you do what you do best? Why don’t you just write this song?’ Because I knew at that time I was going to go, no matter what. So I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ‘I Will Always Love You.’”
When Parton sang the song for Wagoner, he cried and said she could leave – as long as he could produce the song for her. He did, and it hit No. 1 on the country chart. The split, though, still irked Wagoner, who sued Parton for $3 million in 1979. The pair eventually settled out of court.
After that, Parton and Wagoner remained close until he died of lung cancer at 80 – five years after his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."