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.
Throughout Dolly’s seven-year stint on "The Porter Wagoner Show," she and Porter reigned supreme as one of country music’s most popular duos. However, the little blonde with the powerhouse voice had set her sights on a solo career. As she set forth on her path to make her dreams come true, it would mean leaving the show--and her duet partner. Tension mounted behind the scenes, leading Dolly to ask to leave the show. Her decision came two years later than she initially agreed to stay.
In 1974, Dolly wrote, "I Will Always Love You," as her own unique way of saying goodbye to Porter as their professional relationship came to an end. When Dolly first played the song for Porter, he began crying and uttered,
"That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record."
Wagoner followed through on his promise, and the album consequently went to No. 1 on the country charts.
In September 1967, soon after the highly successful release of her debut album, "Hello, I'm Dolly," Porter Wagoner invited Dolly to perform on his hit syndicated television show "The Porter Wagoner Show." Porter was a popular American country music singer known for his flashy Nudie and Manuel suits and blond pompadour. Known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry, Wagoner charted 81 singles from 1954–1983. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2002. When describing Porter, Dolly said,
"We could all relate to his sense of humor and his ‘good ol’ boy’ ways. I could relate to his shiny bright costumes, his flashy smile, and his blond helmet."
Their on-screen chemistry was immediate and fans quickly embraced them and their music. The show’s popularity grew and became the No. 1 syndicated show in American. Each 30-minute episode generally featured performances by Porter, Dolly and a special guest. Beloved comedian, Speck Rhodes also contributed to the show’s relaxed format and Dolly and Porter often performed duets.
View a rare video clip of Dolly Parton singing "Mule Skinner Blues" on "The Porter Wagoner Show" via Vimeo.