Outside of her songwriting, country music icon Dolly Parton is best known for her sweetness and positivity. The 74-year-old living legend is a renowned philanthropist who frequently donates to good causes. It’s hard to imagine Parton ever having an unkind word for anyone.
But in Parton’s recently-released new memoir, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics (which she wrote with Ron K. Oermann), she explains that her relationship with her longtime songwriting partner, Porter Wagoner, was certainly not always sweetness and light. In fact, Parton and Wagoner often butted heads when they wrote together – especially when it came to business matters.
Parton and Wagoner had a rollercoaster ride of a professional relationship
Parton and Wagoner began working together in 1967, when she began to appear on The Porter Wagoner Show regularly. Soon, they began writing together, and the songwriting pair released several duet albums.
In her new memoir, Parton explains that she actually took the lead in many of the duo’s songwriting efforts, despite the fact that she was newer to the business. Wagoner wasn’t well-known as a songwriter when they began working as a pair.
“I kind of helped him get into that,” Parton explains, adding that she helped him with plenty of songs that she didn’t get official credit for.
But, while Wagoner and Parton had professional chemistry, their relationship was often fraught.
“Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not,” Parton writes in Songteller. “We were both very bullheaded.” She explains that she could never figure out whether they were “too alike” or “too different” to get along.
The duo began to butt heads more and more over the years
Of her professional relationship with Wagoner, Parton writes in her memoir, “When we wrote together, sometimes it was fun and sometimes it would be based on whether or not we were fighting.” While she will always be grateful to him and found “a lot of joy” in their work together, there were also many “ups and downs” as the years went on.
The last song they wrote together was “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” in 1974 – their only duet that made it to No. 1, ironically – and by that time, they were fighting more often than they were getting along.
Perhaps the problem was that their collaborative relationship had simply run its course. Parton had initially planned to write with Wagoner for five years, but by then, it had been around seven instead.
Parton said Wagoner could be ‘aggressive’
According to Parton, Wagoner had a volatile temperament at times. She suspected that his domineering behavior toward her was somewhat related to her gender – but she wasn’t about to back down.
“He had a bad temper, and when it flared, it flared,” Parton writes in Dolly Parton, Songteller. “But when he was in good spirits, he was a joy.”
She adds that Wagoner sometimes even scared her when his temper flared.
“Porter was very aggressive in his temperament, and he kind of tried to frighten me,” the 74-year-old reveals. “I think a lot of times, he did.”
Still, Parton explains, she didn’t want to be pushed around “just because she was a girl.” And with a father and six brothers at home, she was “used to men.”
“I didn’t fold like some women, which is why I would just fight back,” Parton asserts.
The country icon wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ as a tribute to the end of her professional relationship with Wagoner
Over time, Wagoner wanted to get more control over Parton’s music career. She alleges in her new memoir that his professional jealousy began to affect their working relationship.
Finally, Parton decided it was finally time to spread her wings and venture out on her own for a full-fledged solo career.
Naturally, the country singer backed out of her partnership with Wagoner the best way she knew how: with a song. She wrote the 1974 No. 1 smash hit “I Will Always Love You” – now in the Grammy Hall of Fame – about trying to free herself from Wagoner’s attempts control.
Every lyric in that song, Parton explains, “came straight from the bottom of [her] heart.”
“He was trying to control something that’s not controllable,” she writes of Wagoner, “and that was making him miserable and me miserable.”
Wagoner himself produced the song – even telling Parton it was the “best song she’d ever written” – and the pair continued to work together occasionally until parting ways for good in 1975.