Their onscreen featured witty back and forths, hit duets, and playful banter. Offscreen, though, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s dynamic had a bit more bite to it. As she geared up to leave the program and make it on her own, their relationship grew more fraught. Though the details would spill out after Parton exited the show and they began an ugly legal battle, some animosity fizzed over while they were filming. During one taping, Wagoner snapped at Parton on air.
Dolly Parton got her big break on ‘The Porter Wagoner Show’
Parton moved to Nashville the day after her high school graduation, intent on making it big in music. Though she found some minor success, her big break came when Wagoner invited her to join his show. The whopping $60,000 salary yanked Parton out of a financial situation where she often couldn’t afford food.
Despite her excitement at joining The Porter Wagoner Show as a singer, the beginning of Parton’s tenure was not easy. She replaced the singer Norma Jean Beasley, and audiences didn’t immediately take to her because of the differences in their looks and sounds. During one concert, the crowd, expecting Beasley, booed Parton when she took the stage.
The pair had a tense relationship that boiled over on air
As Parton and Wagoner began recording together, speculation abounded that they were having an affair. According to Parton, though, there wasn’t much truth to this, though she admitted that their partnership was akin to a marriage.
“Porter and I fought like cats and dogs,” she wrote in the book Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “My husband and I have never fought, and Porter and I did nothing but fight. So when I would write love songs, it wasn’t so much about Porter. Some were. Some were based on love. But people always assume it. And you do have a love affair, of a sort.”
In 1972, Parton’s five-year contract with The Porter Wagoner Show was up. Initially, she’d only promised him those five years, but he wanted her to stay on longer. In addition, as Parton said, the pair fought constantly. In a 1972 episode, Parton stood off-camera as Wagoner welcomed her to perform a solo. According to the book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh, Parton made an offscreen comment that Wagoner didn’t seem to like.
“Shut up,” he said, momentarily letting his smile drop.
Though she would ultimately remain on the show for two more years, the moment was a slip-up that, as Lauren Michele Jackson wrote for the New Yorker, seemed to show that Wagoner “sensed that Parton had one foot out the door.”
Porter Wagoner sued Dolly Parton after she left his show
Onscreen slip-up or not, tensions fully boiled over after Parton left the show. Wagoner claimed he fired her, while she insisted he wouldn’t let her leave. He continually slammed her to the press and sued her for $3 million in 1979, five years after she left.
“He claimed she owed him money for breach of a management contract and for other results from their separation,” according to the book Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton. “Seeking $3 million, Wagoner argued that he’d given Dolly two cars, rings, and diamond necklaces. His suit asked for a number of items: 15 percent of her net income from June 1974 through June 1979, 15 percent of her outstanding record royalties, 15 percent of future record royalties, and so on.”
Eventually, the pair settled outside of court. By the time of his death, Parton forgave her former musical partner.
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