The year 1969 was a significant one for Dolly Parton, who became a member of the Grand Ole Opry that January. It was also a year in which nearly every other major success she experienced was as part of a duo with then-business partner Porter Wagoner. In March 1969, Wagoner signed a deal with RCA Records, which made him a co-producer on all of Parton’s sessions for the label, including her solo recordings. Her biggest hit of the year would be with the Jack Clement song, “Just Someone I Used to Know,” a Top Five duet with Wagoner.
Also in 1969, Parton would pen one of her most iconic compositions. On tour with Wagoner, whose tailored suits by famed designer Nudie Cohn were dripping with rhinestones, Parton was inspired to write the autobiographical “Coat of Many Colors,” the folk ballad about the garment Parton’s mother made for her as a young girl. Parton’s straightforward tale of her bullying schoolmates and her ability to overcome their derision stands as a still-relevant message half a century later, but there’s one surprising element to the song’s creation that often gets overlooked. Exactly 50 years ago today, on April 8th, 1969, Wagoner cut the first version of the song, two-and-a-half years before the Parton would record and have a Top Five hit with it herself.
Wagoner’s version of the song, as heard above, is reportedly one of two he recorded at the time. Set to a fairly upbeat tempo, his tender lead vocal conveys the song’s bittersweet message nicely, but Parton isn’t entirely absent as she is clearly heard contributing harmony lines throughout the record, especially on the chorus.
Although Parton and Wagoner were collaborating on record, in live shows and on television in the late Sixties, the writing of what is now considered one of her signature songs didn’t involve Porter at all, except when it came to how Dolly memorialized the lyrics as they came to her. With no paper readily available on their tour bus at the time, Parton resorted to jotting the lyrics down on one of Wagoner’s dry-cleaning receipts for the care of his Nudie suits.
Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton officially severed their professional relationship in 1974. The previous year, knowing she would be striking out on her own, she wrote “I Will Always Love You,” another of her most popular songs of all time, as a farewell to him. After an acrimonious lawsuit and countersuit, Parton and Wagoner resumed their friendship and the pair even sang together on the Grand Ole Opry again. Parton was at Wagoner’s bedside, spending time with him and his children just before he died in October 2007.