“I Will Always Love You” rose to the top spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in the 1970s and again in the 1980s, when Parton re-recorded it for the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Then came Whitney Houston’s blockbuster rendition, recorded for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, in 1992.  Her soulful, almost operatic take on the song remains an epic hit for the ages. For years, it was the top-selling single by a female artist. “I mean look what a grand song she made out of that simple, heartfelt, you know, song… it was just amazing,” Parton said in the wake of Houston’s death in 2012.

There’s much to unpack in the tune’s backstory, as we learn in the Burns documentary and on the podcast, both of which only briefly touch on rumors about a love affair between Parton and Wagoner, who were both married when they worked together.

More significantly, the song speaks to the times. Parton first arrived on Wagoner’s show as the “pretty little lady,” as he called her, to essentially decorate the set. Her musical letter years later symbolizes a woman asserting herself, having come to the conclusion that a professional relationship that was no longer serving her was no longer what she needed. It was a bold move in 1973, but in keeping with the burgeoning feminist spirit of the era.

Wagoner had been Parton’s champion in her earliest days; he insisted that the singer upgrade to a stronger record label, recorded duets with her until audiences warmed up to the new performer on his show, and taught her how to improve as a singer by holding post mortems after every taped performance. Still, when her popularity began to explode—the podcast zeroes in on her recording of “Mule Skinner Blues” in 1970 as a key turning point—Wagoner felt threatened. He acted out by becoming controlling and punitive.

It may be part of Parton’s genius that she’s able to be generous and empathetic in her assessment of Wagoner’s response to her success, calling his fear of losing power “natural,” as she told Abumrad. “He wasn’t expecting me to be all that I was,” she says. “I was a serious writer; he didn’t know that. I was a serious entertainer; he didn’t know that.”

But he would know soon. The same day she wrote “I Will Always Love You,” as the podcast notes and as ABC News host Robin Roberts recounts on the network’s recent special about the songwriter, Parton also wrote another of her most memorable songs of the era, “Jolene.”

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