It’s hard to imagine Dolly Parton having trouble filling anybody’s shoes, but when she replaced Norma Jean on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967, she was stepping into very high heels, indeed. For seven years, Norma Jean had been a staple on the popular television show, and in a genre that was still running very low on female stars, Jean was one of the brightest ones out there.
A childhood friend of Wanda Jackson, Norma Jean caught the show biz bug early, even having her own radio show at the age of twelve. Heavily influenced by the sound of Kitty Wells, Norma Jean was already touring Oklahoma as a teenager in the fifties, and a stint on the Ozark Jubilee led to a deal with Columbia records. Her early singles fizzled, and when the show was canceled, she was able to reach out to an artist she had met on the set.
Porter Wagoner invited her to audition for his new show, which led to her seven-year run on the program. The exposure led to a deal at RCA records, where she had a quick hit in 1961 with “Let’s Go All the Way.” More hits followed, including the cheeky “I Wouldn’t Buy a Used Car From Him” and “Go Cat Go.” In 1965, she became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Late that year, she had her biggest-selling album, Pretty Miss Norma Jean.
Norma Jean then scored her biggest hit, “The Game of Triangles,” which was a collaboration with Bobby Bare and Liz Anderson. The trio received a Grammy nomination for the recording. Surprisingly, she didn’t collaborate much with Wagoner, despite being his singing partner every week on the television.
Soon, a pregnancy took her off the road and the Wagoner show, and a young Dolly Parton had to deal with the pressure of an audience that cried out for Norma Jean when Parton took the stage. She didn’t have many hits after that point, but she was one of the first female country artists to record a feminist anthem. “Heaven Help the Working Girl” reached #18 in 1968, with the memorable hook “Heaven help the working girl in a world that’s run by men.” She also released one of country music’s first concept albums in 1972, I Guess That Comes From Being Poor, which featured songs centering around the theme of poverty.
After she left RCA, things got a little rocky, but a bout with alcoholism ended with her discovery of Christianity, and over the years, she has begun to tour and record again. She released her first new album in fifteen years in 2005, titled The Loneliest Star in Texas. While she rescinded her Opry membership by moving back to Oklahoma, she still performs from time to time, making appearances in Branson and in Europe, two places that remain quite fond of her music and remember it well.
- “Let’s Go All the Way,” 1964
- “Go Cat Go,” 1964
- “I Wouldn’t Buy a Used Car From Him,” 1965
- “The Game of Triangles” (with Bobby Bare and Liz Anderson), 1966
- “Heaven Help the Working Girl,” 1967
- Pretty Miss Norma Jean, 1965
- Please Don’t Hurt Me, 1966
- Norma Jean Sings Porter Wagoner, 1967
- Jackson Ain’t a Very Big Town, 1968
- I Guess That Comes From Being Poor, 1972