Ken Burns’s ‘Country Music’: Why the Dolly Parton ‘I Will Always Love You’ scene is so powerful
Ken Burns’s ‘Country Music’: Why the Dolly Parton ‘I Will Always Love You’ scene is so powerful

Dolly Parton signs a guitar for “Country Music” producers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. (PBS)
Emily Yahr

Style reporter covering pop culture and entertainment

September 25 at 7:15 AM

Ken Burns’s new eight-part PBS documentary series, “Country Music,” isn’t just a fascinating, in-depth look into the history and impact of the genre — it’s also a sobfest. During a recent preview screening at George Washington University, you could hear the sniffles in the crowd during certain particularly tragic songs or emotional anecdotes.

One scene in particular, which aired in the seventh installment on Tuesday night, stood out: Dolly Parton told the story behind “I Will Always Love You,” the legendary ballad she wrote in 1973 and was made even more famous by Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard” two decades later. Some fans likely already know the history — but hearing Parton personally share the details, interwoven with scenes of her belting out the song at the Grand Ole Opry, made it especially powerful.

It all started in 1973, when Parton was about seven years into a performer gig on country singer Porter Wagoner’s syndicated TV show. The documentary narrator explained that Wagoner and Parton were close, and he encouraged her to write her own songs; but he also maintained “tight control” over their partnership, especially financially. When Parton’s career took off, and his faded, he didn’t take it well. They started to fight constantly.

“It was his show, I wasn’t trying to hog it. I just kind of carved out a little place for myself,” Parton explained.

She knew she had to leave, but Wagoner wouldn’t hear of it and threatened to sue. Finally, Parton said, she walked into his office one day and said, “Porter, sit down. I’ve got something I have to sing to you.”

She launched into “I Will Always Love You,” which she wrote by herself, and was the encapsulation of their rocky relationship. She said that Wagoner broke down crying at his desk. Parton recalled him saying, “That’s the best thing you ever wrote. Okay, you can go. But only if I can produce that record.”

Of course, that worked out well for everyone involved. “She wrote it, I think, because he had done so much for her,” famed Nashville radio host Ralph Emery said. “But she felt if she didn’t leave him, she would just remain ‘Porter’s girl singer.’”

That quote was a haunting transition to the next scene in the documentary, which featured Parton’s 1974 performance at the Grand Ole Opry. She wore a glorious purple pantsuit, blond hair teased high. In that moment, Parton’s pitch-perfect rendition proved just how far she could get on her own, as she sang the simple yet devastating words to what would become one of the top-selling songs in history: “And IIIIIIIII will always love you.”

Naturally, it was waterworks time for the preview screening audience. “Everybody here has probably heard Whitney Houston’s version . . . it raises the hair on the back of your neck,” Burns said during a post-show Q&A. “But I think the combination of story and Dolly singing it, elevates it — without taking anything away from Whitney — into an even higher place.”

Even though he knew that this project would result in meaningful moments, he added, the emotional impact of such stories still took him by surprise.

“I knew we would get into that sort of thing, but I didn’t realize the potency,” Burns said. “It was like, you thought you were going to have beer, and it was hard liquor. It really knocked us for a loop.”

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