My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artists: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

DollyleavesPorterWagonerShowThere was a time, in the not too distant past, when finding country music on television meant finding a syndicated television show that one of your three or four local stations happened to carry. There was no cable television (so no MTV, VH1, CMT or GAC) and no network shows such as Hee Haw. Occasionally, one of the bigger country stars, riding a hit record, might turn up on a network variety show, but that was very much the exception to the rule.

There were syndicated variety shows such as That Good Ole Nashville Music or Pop! Goes The Country and there were syndicated shows hosted by individual country artists such as Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith, Bill Anderson, Billy Walker, Arthur Smith, The Wilburn Brothers, Faron Young, Buck Owens and Flatt & Scruggs. The problem was that not every show was available in every television market (most of these seemed to run on 50-75 stations and lasted for a year or two), and many stations that carried the programs had no set hour at which they might air. On many stations the programs were frequently pre-empted for sporting events and many stations would simply air the show whenever they had a half hour hole in their schedule. Most of the shows aired in the southeast and the southwest far more than they aired in other parts of the country.

I lived my teen years mostly in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where The Ernest Tubb Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show and The Porter Wagoner Show were shown. Of these The Porter Wagoner Show was the most successful in that it ran for nearly twenty years, tended to have a stable time slot on our local stations, and apparently was the most widely syndicated of all of these shows.

The Porter Wagoner Show would be considered an ensemble show, with normally eight (often truncated) songs and some comedy routines each half hour. I think a large part of the success of the show was Wagoner’s decision to always have a featured female singer. In 1961 Pretty Miss Norma Jean became the first woman to be featured, but she left to raise a family in 1965. Jeannie Seely joined the show as Norma Jean’s replacement but left one year later after recording a hit record called “Don’t Touch Me”, written by her then-husband Hank Cochran.

After Seely left, Porter Wagoner auditioned several female, ultimately selecting the then-unknown Dolly Parton for the show. Although Porter had been featuring female singers, before Dolly’s arrival, Porter had never really sung duets or harmonized with his female singers. For whatever reason, Porter recognized that Dolly had a voice that could blend well with his own, so Porter began singing duets with Dolly and arranged to get her on his record label so that they could record together. This is where our story begins.

For my money, Porter Wagon and Dolly Parton are the very best male-female duo in the history of the genre. In retrospect, it may seem inevitable that the pairing would be success, since both artists are now members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but unlike a lot of other such duets, usually of established stars, at the time this duo was put together, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had charted 27 times (twelve Top 10 records and fifteen other songs that cracked the Top 30). 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 more top ten records had graced the charts for Porter. Meanwhile, Dolly Parton was essentially a nobody as far as national recognition was concerned.

It is rather difficult to pinpoint exactly what sets Porter and Dolly apart from the other male-female duos. On the liner notes of The Best of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Nashville publicist Paul Soelberg attempted to explain the magic 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 again, it does not need to make sense. All that is needed is to listen to the recordings – your ears will tell you that something special was happening. So sit back and enjoy our trip through the catalog of the inimitable Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. This catalog features the best music either artist ever made.

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5 responses to “Spotlight Artists: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

  1. Michael A. August 1, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Looking forward to this. I’m a huge Dolly fan but most of her albums with Porter (and a few of her solo albums too) are still unavailable digitally so I haven’t had much of a chance to explore them.

  2. luckyoldsun August 2, 2016 at 12:12 am

    Maybe someone can do a recap of all those syndicated programs.
    Where to all those clips of artists like Webb Pierce and Ray Price singing their old hits while wearing Nudie suits on a crowded stage come from? They look like they’re from the ’50s, but color TV didn’t really get going until the ’60s.
    YouTube used to have clips from Del Reeves’ “Country Carnival,” including a great Webb Pierce tribute, but then they disappeared. They also had some with Billy Walker hosting. I’d be interested to know when that originally ran, and who took over for whom. It seems to be from the mid-’60s.
    “Pop Goes the Country” appears to be much more recent. I’d have guessed it’s from the early ’80s.

    • Razor X August 2, 2016 at 9:42 pm

      A lot of that color footage from the 1950s and 1960s is from television programs and some are from movies that aired in theaters – films such as Las Vegas Hillbillys and The Road to Nashville. Stars of the Grand Ole Opry was one of the first television shows shot in color. As a syndicated program in the 1950s, many of the stations that aired it were probably not capable of actually broadcasting it in color, though.

  3. Paul W Dennis August 2, 2016 at 5:59 am

    POP GOES THE COUNTRY ran from 1974-1982 – it was one of the later syndicated series as I recall Ralph Emery was the host for most of its run, but Tom T Hall hosted at the last year or two

    THAT GOOD OLE NASHVILLE MUSIC started around 1970. When I would visit my aunt in the Washington DC area, I saw some different shows than in TIdewater including the Faron Young Show (sponsored by BC Headache Powders and the Bill Anderson Show. Some of the syndicated shows I only ever saw on VHS or DVD

  4. Ken August 6, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Great choice for this month’s spotlight. Always been a Porter & Dolly fan and I cannot recall any of their single hits that I did not enjoy. Their vocals complimented each other so that the sum was truly greater than it’s parts. They also benefited from Buck Trent’s electric banjo on many of their pre-1973 recordings which gave them a unique sound. Their musical arrangements were varied and spot on so that not every one of their recordings had a cookie-cutter sound. I look forward to revisiting their superb catalog.

    Though Porter is best known for his duets with Dolly he did indeed sing duets with Norma Jean on his TV show:

    They also teamed for a duet of the Buck Owens song “I’ll Take A Chance On Loving You” for his 1963 album “The Porter Wagoner Show” [LSP-2650] and “I Didn’t Mean It” for his 1964 album “Porter Wagoner – In Person” [LSP-2840] The wrong album cover is pictured for this YouTube video.

    A few years earlier Porter had teamed with fellow RCA Victor artist Skeeter Davis for a 1962 album “Porter Wagoner And Skeeter Davis Sing Duets.” [LSP-2529] A single was scheduled for release but never issued. Porter re-recorded one of the songs from that LP for his first duet album with Dolly – “Sorrow’s Tearing Down The House.”

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