All photos courtesy of Curtis Hilbun
In a packed house at Dollywood’s My People Theatre, Dolly Parton honored the life and legacy of Don Warden, the man she called her “Mr. Everything.” A plaque was placed on the side of Dolly’s tour bus, which now sits outside the theater in Dollywood. It reads, “In celebration of Don Warden, Mentor, Musician, Manager and Mr. Everything. I will Always Love You, Dolly.” In addition, a star was placed at the entrance of the bus. It reads, “Don Warden Dolly’s #1 Angel.”
The house band opened the tribute with the song, “Satisfied Mind.” In her opening remarks, Dolly said,
“If there was one person who would have left this world with a satisfied mind it was Don Warden.”
Dolly called Don her “Mr. Everything” because he literally did a little bit of everything for her career. When Dolly exited “The Porter Wagoner Show” Don left his position there to stay on with Dolly. He was a renowned steel guitar player and tenor singer with years of experience. In addition to his on-stage talent, Don was, in Dolly’s words, “a man of many colors.” Dolly said,
“Don was one of those people who you were lucky if you got to know one of those people. There was nothing that Don Warden could not do.”
As manager, Don handled the band accounts, promoted shows, coordinated merchandise sales and really anything that needed to be done. On the road, Don was not only the bus driver he was also the mechanic. He also had a knack for buying and renovating tour buses which he did for years for Dolly and before that for Porter Wagoner.
During the tribute, Dolly invited Don’s widow Anne to the stage along with her son Charlie, his wife and their children. She recognized Anne’s contributions to Don’s career as well as her own. Anne was credited for designing all of Dolly’s merchandise during the time Don was her manager. Dolly also gave her accolades for her work at the Tennessee Mountain Home. Anne worked in tandem with Dolly’s brother Bobby on the renovations and interior design of the Parton family home. In addition, Anne was also instrumental in the launch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Dolly said,
“Together, Don and Anne were the perfect team.”
In her closing remarks, Dolly turned to Anne, his son Charlie and the entire Warden family and said,
“Thanks for sharing him with us.”
Don Warden (March 27, 1929 – March 11, 2017) was 87 years young.
Born in Mt. Grove, Missouri, Don Warden was a self-taught steel guitar player, singer and savvy business manager. Don Warden and Dolly Parton enjoyed a long-standing career together lasting more than 50 years. She affectionately called him her "Mr. Everything" and in remembering Don after his passing on March 11, 2017, Dolly said,
"I’ve known and loved Don Warden since I joined The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967. He was like a father, a brother, a partner and one of my best friends. I feel like a piece of my heart is missing today. Certainly a huge piece of my life is gone. Rest in peace Don and know for sure that I will always love you."
Don and Dolly met after she joined "The Porter Wagoner Show" in 1967. Prior to the popular television show, Don was a founding member of the Porter Wagoner Trio and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957. Fittingly, he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2008.
Don's 14-year run on "The Porter Wagoner Show" ended in 1974 when both he and Dolly departed the show. Don loyally served as Dolly's manager and her "Mr. Everything" for nearly five decades. For Don, retirement didn't come until his health kept him from the work he loved so dearly. During a 2008 concert honoring their late boss and band leader, Dolly presented Don with the Angel Award. The concert took place at Dollywood and became the last stage shared by both Dolly and Don.
Dolly recorded her fond admiration for Don within the pages of her 1994 book, "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business." In talking about Don, Dolly said,
"Anybody who knows him - and he knows everybody - looks up to him. At one time there was even a T-shirt being sold around Nashville that read 'I KNOW DON WARDEN.' People are still calling me and asking, 'How can I get one of those Don Warden T-shirts?' Sometimes it feels like people are only using me to get to Don."
In addition to Dolly's working relationship with Don, his wife Ann became a dear friend and valuable part of Dolly's career. Ann lent her artistic eye for design to some of the early decorations at Dollywood. Later, she and Dolly's brother Bobby worked together at the Parton family homestead also known the Tennessee Mountain Home. Perhaps most notably, Ann served on the board of the Dollywood Foundation which launched Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in 1995. Ann's loyalty to Dolly is surpassed only by that of her love and devotion to her husband.
Music was a huge part of Don's life from an early age. In high school, he formed his own band, The Rhythm Rangers. In addition to his band leader role, he played steel guitar and sang. As a young man, he had an afternoon radio show on KWPM-AM in West Plains, Missouri. The band eventually made their way to the Louisiana Hayride. There, they backed The Wilburn Brothers and Red Sovine. In 1951, Don stepped away from the show for two years to serve in the US Army.
After returning from the Army, Don had another short run on the Hayride. Soon after, he returned to Missouri where he attended flight school. It wasn't until a visit to his parents' home in West Plains, Missouri that he met Porter Wagoner. Along with Speedy Haworth, they formed the Porter Wagoner Trio. In 1957, Don joined the Grand Ole Opry with Porter. Three years later, he started what would become a 14-year television run on the syndicated program, "The Porter Wagoner Show."
Don Warden was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2008. His profound influence on artists such as Dolly and Porter will live on both in the music he made and in the lives he touched.
Don Warden (March 27, 1929 - March 11, 2017) was 87 years young.