By the time Dolly Parton had entered her teens, the young girl from the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee had accomplished something that most adults who love to sing country music could only dare dream: she had performed on the Grand Ole Opry.
Parton, who this week celebrates her 50th anniversary as a member of the Opry cast with an all-star salute, was officially inducted as an Opry member in January 1969, by which time she was a nationally recognized TV star alongside Porter Wagoner. But in 1959, the 13-year-old, then unknown outside of Knoxville, where she had been appearing regularly on Cas Walker’s TV and radio show for three years, traveled to Nashville in the company of her uncle, Bill Owens, with whom she had also written “Puppy Love,” the first song she recorded that same year. With her friends, performers Carl and Pearl Butler, encouraging Opry star Jimmy C. Newman to give up his spot to her on the show, Parton was introduced for the first time by Johnny Cash, and sang the George Jones hit “You Gotta Be My Baby,” receiving three encores from a smitten audience.
Five years later, just after her high-school graduation, Dolly moved to Music City. In the 50 years since becoming an official Grand Ole Opry member — which she did on the very same night as George Jones, Mel Tillis, and Tammy Wynette — Parton’s Opry appearances have always been nothing short of memorable. Here are the five best.
“My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” 1969
In 1969, not long after her Opry induction, Parton was one of the Opry performers featured in filmmaker David Hoffman’s musical documentary The Nashville Sound. Spotlighting Music City’s massive growth in the wake of the blockbuster crossover success of Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and others, the film captures Parton in the middle of her seven-year tenure as Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer,” but here, as she relates the homespun tale of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” there’s no denying her solo star appeal. The cover of Parton’s album by the same name, also released that year, was notable for depicting an image of the singer’s publicity-shy husband, Carl Dean, whom she had married three years earlier.
“Coat of Many Colors,” 1986
In January 1986, Parton celebrated her 17th anniversary as an Opry member the same month that a star-packed CBS special paid homage to the Opry on the occasion of its 60th anniversary two months earlier. An extended segment of the special highlighting Parton’s life and career was narrated by Willie Nelson and included appearances from family members, actress Jane Fonda, and producer Fred Foster. Parton, appearing in archival footage, also performs portions of several of her songs, including “Appalachian Memories,” “Jolene,” and “Islands in the Stream,” her duet with Kenny Rogers. The segment closes with Parton taking the stage for a tender and powerful version of her “Coat of Many Colors.”
“Opry Stars Medley” 1988
Having hosted her own syndicated TV series in the mid-Seventies, Parton would make her debut as a network TV star in Dolly, a splashy variety series for ABC in 1987. In a special episode titled “Nashville Memories,” the host was joined by several of her fellow Opry cast members and country legends including Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Bill Carlisle, Skeeter Davis, Bill Monroe, and Minnie Pearl. In the episode, which aired in April 1988, Dolly took the Opry stage to introduce such legendary figures as longtime announcer Grant Turner, who took his place behind the Opry podium to introduce an artist celebrating his 50th Opry anniversary that year, the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff and his famed “Wabash Cannonball.” Also appearing in the clip in rapid succession are music legends Jimmy C. Newman, Jean Shepard, Bill Monroe, Jeanne Pruett, piano player Del Wood, and Skeeter Davis. As her former singing partner Porter Wagoner took the stage, Parton and the cast join him for a rousing version of the classic “Ole Slewfoot.”
“Together You and I,” 2011
In May 1974, one month after Parton played her last full concert with Porter Wagoner before leaving his TV series and launching her solo career, the pair recorded several songs for what would be their 11th LP of duets. The early version of this idyllic Parton-penned love song from the album, however, was recorded two years earlier. It would be cut again, this time in a solo version, for Parton’s 2011 release Better Day. While the duet version emphasized the pair’s folk-country leanings, the updated track packed a pop-country punch. Spotted briefly in the above clip is Opry legend Jim Ed Brown (who died in 2015) introducing the bubbly entertainer, who takes the stage in a shimmering silver gown, greeted by dozens of camera flashes as she’s welcomed “home” to take her place within the same wooden circle that graced the Ryman stage where she made her debut.
“I Will Always Love You,” 2007
By May 2007, 33 years after leaving Porter Wagoner’s side to strike out on her own, any animosities Dolly and Porter had from that difficult separation were cast aside completely. If anyone thinks otherwise, one look at this clip should suffice. But keep the tissues handy. Wagoner was celebrating his own golden anniversary as an Opry member and also marking the upcoming release of an LP produced by Marty Stuart. But the 80-year-old was also battling lung cancer and shortly after entered hospice care. Wagoner died less than five months later, with Parton by his bedside, singing for and praying with him just hours before he passed on October 28th. With a band that included guitarist Buck Trent, fiddler Stuart Duncan, Patty Loveless on backing vocals, and Stuart on mandolin, even the instrumental break here packs an emotional wallop. Maintaining her own composure throughout the poignant performance, Parton wipes tears from Wagoner’s eyes as she cups his chin and sings, “Goodbye… now, please don’t you cry,” but the ever-professional Parton is likely telling herself that same thing. Twelve years later, so are we.