DOLLY! — 5 Can’t-Miss Episodes of Dolly Parton’s Historic 1970s Variety Show

Dolly

You don’t have to be a Country music fan to love Dolly Parton and her rags-to-rhinestones success story. In her half-century career, the girl with the “Coat of Many Colors” has grown up to be one of the music industry’s most successful businesswomen — and one of its most enduring stars. And it all started on a television variety show that premiered 43 years ago.

The Smoky Mountains native made her debut on local Tennessee radio and TV as a child, and joined flashy balladeer Porter Wagoner on his national variety show in her early 20s. She stepped away from that seven-year partnership (which produced number one hits like “Jolene”) to venture out on her own in 1975, even penning a song about her professional split with Wagoner. “I Will Always Love You” became the closing theme of a self-titled TV series that would be Parton’s coming out party as a solo artist.

Produced by the creative team behind Wagoner’s show, Dolly! was a thirty-minute variety program syndicated to local stations beginning in February of 1976. Parton welcomed big name musical guests and sang her own original songs, as well as inventively arranged pop tunes that pushed the boundaries of traditional Country. Each episode opened with the 29-year-old descending from the ceiling on a rope swing — seriously— while singing her hit “Love Is Like A Butterfly” (introduced by announcer Ralph Emery). There were corny jokes, colorful outfits, giant wigs, and lots and lots of great music. In short, it was a Dolly Parton show. But Dolly! was the first time she did it on her own.

Among fans, Dolly! is remembered as the place where a few of Parton’s lifelong creative partnerships took shape. Kenny Rogers performed with Dolly for the first time on the series, seven years before their duet “Islands In The Stream” would top the charts. And Dolly! marks Parton’s first televised performance with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. A decade later, the three icons would collaborate on the Grammy-winning album Trio and its follow-up Trio II. There’s also an episode featuring a Parton creative partnership that pre-dated the TV show by decades: Dolly’s family. Her mom, dad, and seven of her siblings performed together in the show’s sixth installment, singing traditional songs and sharing memories of their life together. Brother Randy Parton also appears on the final episode.

Sadly, Dolly! ended after just one 26-episode season. Her crossover single “Here You Come Again” and film 9 To 5 (1980) followed soon after, and Dolly was well on her way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world. Here are five episodes of this essential series to look for on getTV.

1. Guest: Ronnie Milsap (Original Airdate: February 1, 1976)

Dolly opens this episode with a countrified rendition of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," Jim Croce’s 1973 folk hit. (Note Dolly’s edit of a cussword from the chorus.) Next, Parton sings and strums “Me And Little Andy,” a folksy story-song that would be the B-side of “Here You Come Again” in 1977. Grammy and Country Music Association Award-winner Ronnie Milsap sings and plays piano on his number one hit “Pure Love.” Dolly sings Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” in a sequence staged in Nashville’s historic Printer’s Alley district and joins Milsap for a duet of the traditional Bluegrass anthem “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Milsap closes with the Don Gibson ballad “(I’d Be) A Legend In My Time.”

2. Guest: Tom T. Hall (Original Airdate: June 13, 1976)

Dolly kicks off this episode dueting with Tom T. Hall — a 2019 inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — on his chart-topping novelty song “Sneaky Snake.” Next, Dolly sings her iconic ballad “Coat Of Many Colors” and Hall performs “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine,” voted one of the top 100 Country songs by Rolling Stone. Dolly sings “Cracker Jack” from her 1974 album Jolene and duets with Hall on his biggest hit “I Love.” Hall closes with “I Care,” the A side of “Sneaky Snake.” Pay attention to Tom T.’s belt buckle in this episode. It’s epic.

3. Guest: Chuck Woolery (Original Airdate: February 15, 1976)

If you enjoy TV game shows, you’ll recognize Dolly’s guest on this episode: Chuck Woolery. The future emcee of Love Connection actually got his start as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the 1960s. Dolly opens the show dueting with Chuck on Elvis’ Burning Love and then solos on Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. Kentucky native Woolery sings “Growing Up In A Country Way” and “Little Green Apples,” and Dolly and Chuck duet on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” You’ll notice there are a number of Wheel Of Fortune jokes in this episode. Woolery was the original emcee of that series, hosting from its debut in 1975 until Pat Sajak took over in 1981.

4. Guest: Mel Tillis (Original Airdate: May 30, 1976)

Dolly kicks off the show with a rocking rendition of Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer,” dueting with Country music legend Mel Tillis (and playfully joking about Mel’s trademark stutter). Mel sings his 1976 hit “Good Woman Blues” and Dolly follows with Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” Mel croons “I Order One For Me” from his 1976 album “Love Revival” and joins Dolly for his 1973 hit “Don’t Let Go” (originally recorded with Sherry Bryce). Dolly does a lot of laughing in this episode, and you will, too.

Dolly!: Dolly Parton and Mel Tillis

5. Guest: Freddy Fender (Original Airdate: July 25, 1976)

Dolly opens with the R&B hit “Higher And Higher” and “Mr. Bojangles.” Mexican-American superstar Freddy Fender performs his 1975 hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Night,” a doo-wop-flavored variation on his unique Tejano sound, and “Loving Cajun Style” from his 1975 LP Are You Ready For Freddy. Dolly sings a soulful version of “Dixie” (filmed at the Hermitage Mansion in Nashville) and joins Fender for his crossover smash “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.” This episode is a great reminder of Dolly’s embrace of all genres and her uncanny ability to make each one her own.

For more, visit the getTV schedule.

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