I don’t suppose anyone would rate either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton as the greatest male and/or female singers in country music. Yes, they were both good singers and dynamic personalities, and yes, Kevin over at County Universe ranked Dolly #1 on his list of the 100 Greatest Female Singers, but Kevin was considering her career in its totality (singer, songwriter, live performer, film actress, and television star), not just her vocal prowess. Yet, when it came to performing as a male-female duet, there were none better than Porter and Dolly. While other male–female duets may have had chart topping records (George Jones & Tammy Wynette; Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty) none charted more records. And remember this, when George & Tammy and Loretta & Conway paired up, each of the artists involved was among the top three male or female singers at the time of the pairing.
Not so for Porter and Dolly. The first Porter & Dolly duet made its chart debut on December 2, 1967. As of that date Porter Wagoner had emerged as a solid journeyman performer who had charted 27 times, with twelve top tens and fifteen other songs that cracked the top thirty. He did have a good stage show and a syndicated television show that make him a familiar figure to households across the south, but after his first four chart hits had hit the top ten in 1954-1956, only eight top ten records had graced the charts for Porter.
Meanwhile Dolly Parton had only charted two records, both on the Monument label, “Dumb Blonde” (#24 Billboard / #10 Cashbox ) and “Something Fishy” (#17 on both Billboard and Cashbox). Dolly’s first six RCA singles failed to reach the top ten, four of them falling between #40 and #50 on Billboard’s Country Charts. In fact, it would not be until July 1970 that Dolly Parton would have her first RCA top ten solo single when her take on the old Jimmie Rodgers classic “Mule Skinner Blues” hit #1 on Record World, #2 on Cashbox and #3 on Billboard.
I won’t recount the story of how Porter lost his “girl singer” Norma Jean Beasler and eventually found Dolly Parton as her replacement. Suffice it to say that Porter and Dolly teamed up for a dozen memorable albums before splitting up. The vocal blend they achieved defies explanation although some tried to explain it. On the liner notes of The Best of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Nashville publicist Paul Soelberg wrote as follows:
“… Another phrasing technique they’ve mastered is the ability to emphasize the beginning of a key word followed with a superbly timed withdrawal of that emphasis. The impact is overwhelming.
They do all this in perfect harmony. Generally Dolly sings the melody (lead), and Porter sings tenor harmony. But the effect seems reversed, for Porter, whose voice is lower, sounds as if he’s singing melody while Dolly’s high soprano seems to be carrying the harmony. It seems like we are getting four vocal parts out of two people!”
I’m not sure that explanation makes much sense to me, but then, it didn’t need to make sense. All I had to do was listen to the recordings to be able to tell that something special was happening.
The magic started with “The Last Thing On My Mind”. While this was not their biggest hit, it may have been the most important hit in that it established Porter and Dolly as a duet and it introduced country audiences to one of the most important folk songwriters in Tom Paxton. While Paxton had been almost totally unknown to country audiences, except those more attuned to bluegrass, after this recording it many country artists started recording his material, especially this song but also Paxton classics like “Bottle of Wine”. Charley Pride electrified the audience using “Last Thing On My Mind” with essentially the Porter and Dolly arrangement as the opening track to his Live At Panther Hall album. After this the next eight Porter & Dolly singles reached the top ten on one chart or the other with their third single “We’ll Get Ahead Some Day” featuring a B-side that charted in “Jeannie’s Afraid of The Dark”, a song that became one of their most requested concert songs. The big breakthrough came with their remake of a 1962 George Jones hit “A Girl I Used To Know” which in their hands became “Just Someone I Used To Know”, reaching #1 on Record World’s country charts.
Porter and Dolly had a collective sense of humor that few couples could match. While “We’ll Get Ahead Some Day” was somewhat humorous treatment of a serious matter, most of the singles were serious, if sometimes nostalgic (such as “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man”). On their albums; however, anything was possible with religious songs, serious ballads and tender love songs being mixed in with some of the most outrageously funny songs such as “Run That By Me One More Time” (from Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca), “Fight and Scratch” (from Once More) , “Her And The Car And The Mobile Home” (from The Right Combination) and “I’ve Been Married (Just As Long As You Have)” (from We Found It).
The Porter Wagoner – Dolly Parton duets established Dolly Parton as a star. Eventually, of course, the duet came apart as Dolly sought freedom from the restraints that Porter Wagoner placed on her recordings. The split, when it came, was acrimonious but eventually both came to understand the value of what they had achieved as a pair. As noted author John Morthland observed “Yes, Porter Wagoner held her back in some ways, but once she was free of him, she wasted no time overcompensating grotesquely in the opposite direction.”
I agree that Dolly Parton is a great artist, worthy of the accolades that she has received, but while she has recorded many great records as a solo artist, no other great artist has released as many truly terrible records as Dolly Parton. Her greatness was established in her duets with Porter Wagoner and there isn’t a dud in the bunch.
I think I’ll head over to my turntable, pop me a Diet Dr. Pepper and listen to my all-time favorite duet. I suggest that you do likewise as you read the My Kind of Country spotlight presentation on the unforgettable Dolly Parton.
APPENDIX A – THE SINGLES OF PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON
APPENDIX B – PORTER AND DOLLY ON CD
There have been a bunch of anthologies on the market over the past twenty years but never a comprehensive overview (are you listening, Richard Weitze?)
Porter and Dolly recorded well over a hundred songs as a duo, all on RCA, yet I would guess that only about fifty actual song titles have been released over the years on a bunch of maddeningly overlapping collections. There are four titles currently available from my usual source, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop:
1) Twenty Greatest Hits – this is issued on the TeeVee label, an offshoot of Gusto/King
2) All American Country – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – BMG Special Products – only ten songs
3) Best Of The Best – King – another ten song cheapie
4) The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – RCA – twenty songs
I didn’t actually count the overlap, but I suspect if you purchased all four of the CDs listed above, you’d have a total of about thirty different songs.
Collectors Choice Music has an additional CD available, Porter and Dolly – this is a straight up reissue of an old RCA album but gives you about eight more songs not found on the other collections.