Both Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Their individual careers have been well documented. However, it is often overlooked that for a span of seven years the two worked a lot of television, made numerous live appearances and had a string of hit duets together.
Born in West Plains, Missouri, Wagoner grew up with a deep love of traditional country music and was taught to play guitar by his sister. After a lot of performances, both live and on radio, and a brief run on The Ozark Mountain Jubilee television program, he was signed to a recording contract with RCA Records.
Initially, his releases flopped and just as RCA executives were ready to ax Wagoner from the label, he scored a top 10 hit, "Company's Comin'," in 1954. That was followed by his first number one single, "A Satisfied Mind." His fan base blossomed on the strength of his syndicated television program, The Porter Wagoner Show, which debuted in 1961.
As for Parton, she was the fourth of twelve children born to her parents in the Smokey Mountain region of Tennessee. At the age of seven, she was playing guitar and singing on the Cas Walker Farm and Home radio show on WIVK in Knoxville. Parton graduated high school in 1964, and moved to Nashville the next day with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and songs that she had written.
For the first seven years of The Porter Wagoner Show, Norma Jean was the featured female vocalist. In 1967, she left the show to spend more time with her family. Wagoner's office phoned Parton, who had minimal success so far in the business, and invited her for an interview. Soon, she joined Wagoner's troupe.
Parton's first live show with Wagoner was on Sept. 14, 1967, in Lebanon, Virginia. At first, she was resented by the audience, who chanted phrases like 'We want Norma Jean.' This left a young Parton in tears.
”That night, I came up with the idea of singing duets. If people could hear us together, they might change their minds,” Wagoner said in a 1999 issue of Country Weekly.
His theory was right on the money as the two hit the top 10 with their first duet release, "The Last Thing on My Mind." They were named Vocal Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1970 and 1971.
From 1968 to 1974, Wagoner and Parton had 15 singles reach the top 20 of Billboard's country chart. Of those hits, standouts include "Just Someone I Used to Know," "Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man," "The Right Combination" and "Please Don't Stop Loving Me.”
In 1974, the pair parted ways. Upon their separation, Parton wrote her signature song, "I Will Always Love You," as a farewell to Wagoner.
Wagoner released “The Wagonmaster” in 2007. The album served as a victory lap for the ailing star. In November of that year, he died at the age of 80. For Parton, tunes such as "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene" and "9 to 5" have made her a household name. In recent years, she has returned to her roots with the release of several bluegrass and folk-related projects.
Today, fans can revisit many classic Wagoner and Parton performances via re-runs of The Porter Wagoner Show, which are aired on RFD-TV. Additionally, Bear Family Records has released a six-CD box set of all of their duet recordings. This set stands as an outstanding snapshot of one of the most important parts of country music history.
Charles Haymes is a country music journalist and historian. He has been covering the genre for more than 25 years. He served as co-host for the first two Arkansas Country Music Awards and is slated to return to that role for the third annual show in 2020.