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Of all the legendary songs Dolly Parton has written in her illustrious career, “I Will Always Love You” remains one the most iconic. Dolly’s version hit No. 1 on the charts twice in her career (when she first released the song in 1974, and again when she re-recorded it for her 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). And of course, the ballad became popular once again when Whitney Houston recorded a version for the movie The Bodyguard in 1992.
Perhaps the reason that “I Will Always Love You” has struck a chord with so many listeners through the years is that it has such strikingly simple, yet heartbreaking, lyrics. It’s the straight-forward passion behind the words that make the song so timeless:
If I should stay
I would only be in your way
And so I’ll go, but I know
I’ll think of you each step of the way
And I will always love you
I will always love you
And yet, the song was not written about a romantic breakup—it was written about a professional one.
In 1973, Dolly had hit a roadblock in her relationship with Porter Wagoner, her mentor and on-screen duet partner. She had agreed to star on his TV program, The Porter Wagoner Show, for five years and had done so with great success—but eventually five years passed, and she was ready to go out on her own and make her own career. Unfortunately, Porter wasn’t ready to see her go, and they were butting heads over the decision.
“There was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going,” Dolly told CMT back in 2011. “I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you do what you do best? Why don’t you just write this song?’...So I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ‘I Will Always Love You.’”
The next day, armed with her new song, Dolly walked back into the office and asked Porter if he could hear her out for minute. She sang “I Will Always Love You” to him, and next thing she knew, Porter was overcome with emotion.
“He started crying,” Dolly told the Tennessean in 2015. “When I finished, he said, ‘Well, hell! If you feel that strong about it, just go on—providing I get to produce that record because that’s the best song you ever wrote.’”
From there, the rest was history: Dolly eventually left the show, and Porter produced her next record, Jolene, with “I Will Always Love You” on the tracklist. The song became the multiple-time No. 1 hit we know it as today, and Dolly and Porter even went on to perform it together at a special Grand Ole Opry show. She also reportedly sang it to Porter one final time, on the day that he died in 2007.
At the end of the day, Dolly says “I Will Always Love You” represents her desire to show Porter how much she cared about and appreciated him, even though it was time for her to go.
“It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here,’” she told CMT.
So there you have it—the true story behind Dolly’s most iconic tune.
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