Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton released their seventh duets album on RCA Records in January 1972. The ten-track collection, entitled The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil, was helmed by their longtime producer Bob Ferguson.
The album produced two top-twenty singles, both penned by Wagoner. “The Right Combination” is a somewhat cheesy ballad in which the pair boasts about enduring love. The record is wonderful, and Parton’s fiery vocal is fantastic, but the arrangement is spastic. Ferguson switches between lush strings typical of the Nashville Sound and the more appealing mixture of fiddle and steel so fast his intentions are difficult to pinpoint.
The only other single, “Burning The Midnight Oil, has an appealing honky-tonk groove and wonderful pedal steel that helps the mid-tempo ballad chug along quite nicely. The background singers are a dated add-on but not distracting enough to divert attention from the song’s positive qualities.
Beyond the minor radio hits, The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is notable for the inclusion of “Her and the Car and the Mobile Home,” written by Dave Kirby and Don Stock. The novelty tune, in which a philandering husband is left abandoned and homeless, is an excellent comedy bit the pair sells brilliantly. The song grows tired on repeated listenings, which likely kept it as an album cut, but it does have very considerable charms nonetheless.
The album also contains three Parton originals. The confrontative “I’ve Been This Way Too Long” is a delightful steel drenched number about old habits and unwavering routines. A bitter truth stands at the forefront of “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall,” a pensive ballad about how fighting doesn’t mean the end of relationships. The arrangement is oddly cheery, and the parallels to their split are eerie, but the song itself is fantastic. Their love has truly died on “Somewhere Along The Way,” a mournful ballad with the arrangement to match.
Wagoner’s additional writing contributions include two more songs. “More Than Words Can Tell” is a ballad indicative of the generations in which love prevails and vows meant divorce wasn’t an option. The song finds Wagoner and Parton old and grey, enjoying their blissful golden years. The song is a perfect counterpart to “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall.” His other song, “The Fog Has Lifted” isn’t the most lyrically strong cut on the album, but it has significant deeper meaning knowing the couple’s complicated history and reconciliation as a musical pair.
The remaining tracks were outside cuts. Eddie Sovine composed “On and On,” another of the records tracks devoted to steadfast love. “Through Thick and Thin,” by Bill Owens, might be the album’s strongest cut and is surely one of my favorites from the project. The fiddle heavy tune is an excellent examination of marriage and the tides that bind couples for life.
Though not necessarily billed as such, The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is a concept album exploring relationships through long-term love. As I’ve noted, these tracks examine marriage in a beautiful and honest manner without seeming sugary or overstated. The reflection on older love in “More Than Words Can Tell” is as heartwarmingly relatable as the stubborn couple at the center of “I’ve Been This Way Too Long.” The best of these, without question, is “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall,” a sentiment as significant today as when Parton wrote it more than forty-four years ago.
I’ll admit that given my age (I’m 28) I haven’t explored the great duet partners in country music history beyond the singles that have become classics. Which means that, unlike my colleagues, I’m hearing this music for the first time with completely fresh ears. While that wasn’t an advantage with many of the other 1960s/1970s artists we’ve covered, it works in my favor here. The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is spectacular, with Parton (who I’ve also never spent significant time with) in stellar form. While none of these songs have truly amounted to anything, they combine to make a fine collection on their own.