Porter Wagoner, who was born 89 years ago today, solidified his place in television history about as strongly as he did in the country music history books. From 1960 to 1981, the Grand Ole Opry star was also the star of his own syndicated TV series. Early on, Wagoner introduced viewers to his “girl singer,” Norma Jean Beasler, whom he referred to as “Pretty Miss Norma Jean.” When Beasler left the show, she was briefly replaced by Jeannie Seely, who was then followed in 1967 by newcomer Dolly Parton. Initially uncomfortable in her role, especially because Norma Jean’s tenure and popularity made it difficult for the TV audience to accept her, Parton eventually settled in and the show flourished, as did her many duets with Wagoner and their respective solo careers.
By 1973, however, Wagoner and Parton found their working relationship at a difficult crossroads. Wagoner was “the boss” and Parton, who had only intended to stay with the show for five years, was already nearing her seventh, finding it more difficult to live in her employer’s tall, demanding shadow. That tension, although often diffused with typical Parton humor, is part of what makes the above clip from a 1973 episode of the series seem at first disarming, then abundantly charming.
“Run That By Me One More Time” is a quick-paced tune penned by Parton and taken from the 1970 LP, Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca. It was among the songs featured in an episode that highlighted several of the duo’s multi-award-winning collaborations. In the song, the couple feud about his issues with drinking, money and coming home late as Wagoner defends himself with flimsy excuses Parton’s not buying. The “fight” starts even before their performance of the song does, with Wagoner introducing Parton by joking, “We’re back again, me and my sidekick here. . . She just kicked me in the side.” “Not yet but I think I will after that,” Parton replies as they segue into the tune and things proceed downhill pretty quickly. As it turns out, however, the shambolic, improv-heavy performance may have a combination of the song’s pugilistic theme and the surprise appearance of another famed country-music TV star.
As she reaches the end of her first solo verse, Parton rattles Wagoner by ad-libbing her vocal, telling him, “I just thought I’d throw that in.” His eyes wide with surprise, Wagoner loses his place, grins awkwardly and shoots back, “I’m throwin’ it out!” But he’s soon distracted by an as-yet-unseen person on the set and calls out, “Jim, how ya doin’?” as Parton also acknowledges the visitor with a more subtle, “Hey.” Trying to regain composure and get back into the song proves challenging and the funny ad-libs keep coming. After an instrumental break which finds musician Buck Trent firing notes from his banjo as if it’s a loaded machine gun, Porter and Dolly seem to genuinely enjoy the loose, extemporaneous groove they’ve settled into with the tune.
The song over, Wagoner beckons the on-set guest into the shot, but with his back to the camera as he goes in to bear-hug Parton for an uncomfortably long time, it’s several second before viewers learn that it’s “Big Bad John” singer and breakfast-meat king Jimmy Dean, who introduces himself to Wagoner using a fake name. “I make the best pork sausage in the country,” he says.
Parton and Wagoner would part ways the following year but remained close until his death in 2007. They are both enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Parton’s Pure & Simple LP will be released on August 19th.