The True Story Behind Merle Haggard’s “Always Wanting You,” A Confessional Love Song To Dolly Parton

Merle Haggard Dolly Parton country music
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Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton were good friends for decades, all the way until Merle’s passing in 2016.

But, Merle always felt much more for Dolly than your typical friendship, and was pretty taken by her for most of the time they new each other.

Merle was married five times, but his marriage to his last wife, Theresa Ann Lane, lasted from 1993 until he passed away in 2016. Dolly, on the other hand, has been married to the same man, her husband Carl Dean, since 1966.

While Dolly’s been known to play it coy in the media in terms of admitting or denying she ever had any sort of extramarital affair, she did go on the record to say that she never had an affair with Merle, specifically after people began speculating about the possibility.

In her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyricsshe wrote this about him:

“Merle Haggard was a special, special person. I heard he had a crush on me. All I knew was that we had a great relationship.

When I was on the road with Porter’s show, we traveled some together. Merle would ride on my bus sometimes, and we’d play card games together.

We just had a really good time. But I never thought about him romantically.”

Unfortunately for Merle though, Dolly hit him with the ultimate friend-zone move, saying he reminded her of her brother, Denver:

“We never had an affair or anything like that. We were just buddies, as far as I was concerned.

He reminded me of my brother Denver, so I really related to him. We had a good time, and we loved each other’s music.”

It’s rumored that he initially fell in love with her while recording her 1975 song, “Kentucky Gambler,” which he covered that same year for his Keep Movin’ On album. They also toured together in the mid-’70s, and Merle has admitted publicly before to writing his song, “Always Wanting You,” about his deep love for Dolly.

To him, it was much more than a friendship kind of love, but clearly Dolly never felt the same way about him.

“Always Wanting You” was a solo write by Merle, and was released as the second single from his aforementioned album, Keep Movin’ On.

It’s a very honest, and pretty damn sad, admission about his love for Dolly and how he ultimately knew it could never be:

“Always wanting you, but never having you,
Makes it hard to face tomorrow ’cause I,
Know I’ll be wanting you again,
Always loving you but never touching you,
Sometimes hurts me almost more than I can stand.”

Possibly even sadder than the song itself is the fact that he actually did sing it to her in person once, knowing good and well nothing that he dreamt about was going to ever really come from it:

“He sang it to me. I took it as a great compliment, just as a fellow songwriter would.

I didn’t connect it to anything any bigger. I didn’t know it was that big of a deal.”

I like to think Dolly actually did know it was a big deal, but might’ve played it off like that to save Merle from some of the embarrassment… though to be honest, it really doesn’t seem like he was every that afraid to admit those feelings to her or anyone else, for that matter.

His wife at the time, Bonnie Owens, even knew he was in love with another woman, and told Dolly about it herself at a banquet:

“Later, at a BMI banquet, Merle’s wife, Bonnie, said to me, ‘Well, you know Merle’s in love with you.’

And I said, ‘Well, I love him, too.’ She said, ‘I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about real love.’

I said, ‘Well, I can’t help what he feels. I love him to death, but there’s nothing going on between us, and there never was.

I’m honored and flattered that he had a crush. But I’m sorry if it caused any problem.'”

Dolly is obviously incredibly stunning on the outside, but Merle said himself it was much more than her physical attributes that attracted him to the queen of country music.

In his 2002 memoir, My House of Memorieshe wrote this, in addition to called her an “exceptional human being”:

“I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her. And she knows it.”

Of course, Dolly has equally high praise for her fellow country legend:

“He recorded a song of mine called, ‘Kentucky Gambler’ and had a No. 1 hit with it. It was a big, big record.

I was very honored that he would even want to record that. It was another of my story songs, and he did a great job of it.

I thought then, and I still think, that he is one of the greatest songwriters and one of the greatest singers, ever.”

Back in 1987, the pair teamed up for a medley of The Hag’s biggest hits on Dolly’s TV program, The Dolly Show.

Just watching the two of them together and seeing their very obvious on-camera chemistry, it makes you wonder what could’ve been.

Though we’ll never know the answer to that, at the very least, Merle did give us a damn good heartbreaking song as a result… and what’s more country than a sad tune about a long lost love that can never be?

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