Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s partnership is remarkable even within a genre known for its venerable pairings. At the start of their professional relationship, Wagoner was an established star with dozens of hit singles and a weekly television program, and Parton was the new “girl singer” who had to win over fans of the departed Norma Jean. By the end of their partnership, seven years later, Wagoner’s chart action was winding down, and Parton’s stardom, which had begun its flight during her tenure with Wagoner, was about to go into hyperdrive. Parton said goodbye to Wagoner with “I Will Always Love You,” and lawsuits followed, but their chemistry as a duet was strong enough to survive their separation, with previously recorded material continuing to chart.
Parton and Wagoner were each artistic forces to be reckoned with. They were A-list songwriters and performers, and the enormous volume of material they recorded together was paralleled by a wealth of solo releases. Early on, Wagoner wrote surprisingly little for their pairings, choosing to showcase Parton’s material alongside that of other Nashville greats and a few adventurous selections, like Dan Penn’s “The Dark End of the Street.” Wagoner’s songwriting contributions picked up in the latter half of their partnership, and the pair also wrote several songs together. One has to wonder if the increasing fortunes of Parton’s solo career directed her original material to herself, and Wagoner was drawn to fill the void alongside his singing and producing duties.
Wagoner’s craft was meticulous, and the sidemen he selected included members of his road band (led by Buck Trent and featuring fiddler Mack Magaha) and the cream of Nashville’s session players (including Pete Drake, Lloyd Green, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and Roy Huskey, Jr.). The catalog he produced with Parton is impressive for both its size and uniformly high quality. The songwriting, vocals, production and playing never wavers across the duo’s seven-year partnership, and their commercial appeal lasted from an early cover of Tom Paxton’s folk classic “The Last Thing on My Mind” through Wagoner’s “Is Forever Longer than Always.” Along the way, fans will find the hallmarks of both Wagoner and Parton’s individual material, including the former’s dramatic recitations, the latter’s hard-scrabble roots and both of their religious faith.
Duet singing is ultimately more about the chemistry of conversation and the revelation of interpersonal dynamics than about the individual vocalists. Wagoner’s spoken-word interlude gives Parton’s lyric of family tragedy an extra shot of morbidity in “The Party,” and the easy give-and-take of “I’ve Been This Way Too Long” could just as easily be the extemporaneous bickering of a long-time couple. Though neither family nor spouses, the pair sang with the sort of connectedness that marks blood harmonies – and feuds. In retrospect, the spark that brought even the most common romantic themes to life now seems freighted with foreshadows of their bitter dissolution, eventual detente and final emotional reunion.
Like all of Bear Family’s box sets, this set’s extensiveness is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing, of course, are six discs of superb recordings and a lavishly illustrated seventy-eight page book; the challenge is in trying to absorb seven years of material without the division and pacing of the original singles and albums. Alanna Nash’s lengthy notes and Richard Weize’s detailed discography provide fans a guide to the duo’s intertwined paths, and the compression of their career into a box set highlights the evolution of their pairing at fast-forward speed. This collection stands tall, even among the very tall field of archival releases Bear Family has produced since it’s founding in 1975; start saving your pennies and dimes (and quarters and dollars), as this is a must-have for fans of Porter, Dolly and Porter & Dolly. [Â©2014 Hyperbolium]