There 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.