Where to start? How do you begin a review of a song as seemingly universal as this one is? I could go on about what a massive success this song was in all the different versions that were recorded. But for now, I'll just talk about what a fine record this 1974 original is on its own merits.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of country music history knows that Parton wrote the song for her mentor Porter Wagoner, from whom she was separating professionally at the time. The song deals with feelings personal to Parton, but they are conveyed in a manner just vague enough that virtually any listener can connect the story with his or her own experiences.
But for all of Parton's formidable songwriting talent, what makes “I Will Always Love You” a great record goes beyond the lyric sheet. This original 1974 recording is simply one of the finest displays that can be found of the deep sincerity that Parton has always brought to her performances. Her vocal here is subtle and almost hushed, but she fills every crevice of the acoustic arrangement with her aching, nakedly honest delivery, while the melody of the song is just hauntingly beautiful.
There's not a trace of anger or animosity to be found – just honest, heavy-hearted resignation that the relationship could not be made to work, coupled with ongoing love, and hope for the loved one to find happiness. Best of all, Parton is such a fine vocal interpreter that you get the sense that if she were singing the song directly to Wagoner, and to no one else, that it would still have sounded exactly as it does on the record here.
Without a doubt, there are clear reasons why “I Will Always Love You” is a classic. Though this is only the beginning of the life that “I Will Always Love You” would take on over the years, this 1974 recording remains the definitive version of the song.
Written by Dolly Parton
Next: Please Don't Stop Loving Me (with Porter Wagoner)
Her duet with Vince Gill on “I Will Always Love You” added that much more dimension to an already fantastic song. That, even beyond Whitney’s version, is my favorite version of this song.
Great write-up. I think you really get to the heart of the song’s appeal: it is as universal as songs get.
What seems incredible is that, not long after Dolly’s version had hit it big back in 1974, Elvis himself came within a hair’s breadth of recording his own version of it. Dolly was hoping that the King would do it, but then the Colonel stepped in and said that would only happen if she signed away half the publishing rights, which he said was standard procedure for any song Elvis did. Obviously, Dolly had to say no, but it broke her heart.
She did find a taker for the song not long after that, though: her soon-to-be Trio pal Linda Ronstadt recorded her own version on Prisoner In Disguise in 1975.
Ronstadt’s version is excellent. I’m sure an Elvis version would have sounded great as well, but I sure don’t blame Dolly for sticking to her guns on the publishing issues, which couldn’t have been easy.
As you said in your review, Ben, there is both a tragic and optimistic quality to “I Will Always Love You.” Dolly may or may not have been conscious of this when she was writing and recording it, but she certainly was when it struck a nerve in 1974.
The whole thing about Elvis wanting to record it, and the Colonel’s stepping in to scotch the deal on the basis of an outmoded way of thinking about business, seems to me to be one of the greatest missed opportunities in pop music history. Dolly said in later years that she was totally shattered about the whole thing, because she knew that Elvis would have put everything he had into it had the Colonel not interfered. Linda, however, was the next best person for the song, not because she and Dolly had become friends, but because Linda herself felt a deep emotional connection to the song. Linda’s version is much less country than Dolly’s is, but even Dolly herself wildly approved of how Linda interpreted it.