Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Legendary country music performer Porter Wagoner is noted for his long-standing commitment to his craft. Randy Travis, Alison Krauss, Kitty Wells, George Jones, Bill Monroe: the photographs on the walls of his dressing room backstage at Nashville's famed Grand Ole Opry reflect both country music's past and future. And the name "Porter Wagoner" does as well, conjuring up an image of this tall, blond man with the engaging smile and the flashy, sequined suits.
But behind the smile and the sequins is a gifted individual whose deep love for country music is matched by his gift for songwriting, singing, and, most of all, entertaining. "Porter Wagoner is a country music star in the truest sense of the word," noted the Official Opry Picture-History Book. "As a showman on stage, he is without equal, for he is not merely a singer, but an entertainer par excellence."
Wagoner's story is the quintessential rags-to-riches tale. He was raised in South Fork, Missouri, the fifth child of farming couple Charley and Bertha Wagoner. As a boy, young Porter stood alongside his father, tending to the cattle and hogs and working the crops the family depended on for food and income.
Wagoner's musical roots were like those of many rural Americans during the Depression era. He listened to radio shows like the Chicago-based National Barn Dance and WSM-Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. On the family Victrola, he was introduced to the new "blue-grass-style" sounds of Bill and Charlie Monroeill Monroe would become Wagoner's first musical idol.
In his biography A Satisfied Mind: The Country Music Life of Porter Wagoner, author Steve Eng quoted a recollection of Wagoner's sister, Lola: after playing a Monroe recording, "[Porter] would ask, 'Isn't that the purtiest thing you ever heard?' [Recalled] Lola, 'It was pretty, but he was obviously getting something out of it I was not.'"
Country Boy, City Boy
During the lean years of the Depression, the Wagoner family was visited by both personal tragedy and the dire economic downturn common to many in the rural Midwest. Porter's older brother, Glennho had drawn Porter on stage to play for local barn dances and had helped him choose his first guitaruccumbed to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, in August of 1942. As Wagoner told Eng, "I felt like after he [Glenn] died, that I should carry on his music ... because it meant so much to him."
Early the next spring, Charley Wagoner was forced to auction off the family farm: horses, cows, hogs, and other livestock, as well as Pete, the family mule, were all sold at the auctioneer's block. The Wagoners moved to West Plains, Missouri, in search of jobs; the move from the country to the city brought Porter closer to the publicnd to the recognition that would someday take him all the way to Nashville.
In 1944 14-year-old Wagoner got a job as a grocery store clerk, where he idled away slow periods by strumming his guitar and singing the songs of his musical idols Monroe, Ernest Tubb, and the legendary Hank Williams, Sr. The storeowner was so impressed by the young man's vocal ability that he shrewdly put the teenager on an early morning local radio show to help promote his business.
From there Wagoner moved to radio station KWTO in nearby Springfield, where he performed a 15-minute spot on a weekly series in 1951. When popular country star Red Foley asked him to join the cast of his Ozark Jubilee in 1954, Wagoner was quick to accept. Foley, a veteran Opry star, schooled his protege in many facets of entertaining; with the dawn of a new media format called television, Wagoner's career as a TV personality was born.
From his role as a featured artist on Jubilee, he went on to host The Porter Wagoner Show/the longest-running country music television show in historyrom 1961 to 1980. Downplaying his part in the show's success, Wagoner noted in an interview with Contemporary Musicians (CM), "I think the show is always the star. I've always been a team player, tried to make the show and the bandspecially something that I was responsible for, like The Porter Wagoner Show or my show on the Grand Ole Opryuccessful."
The program did prove to be a success. Featuring the talented Wagonmasters band and a variety of guest stars, many of whom went on to fame in Nashville, The Porter Wagoner Show was syndicated to over 100 stations across the United States and Canada. Its viewing audience of over 45 million people boosted Wagoner's popularity as a touring act far beyond the borders of Music City.
A Satisfied Mind
Wagoner had signed a recording contract with the RCA label in August of 1952, but his first few albums were released to indifferent critical response. "For the first couple of records that I made I just tried to sing like Hank Williams, you know, because I liked his things so much," Wagoner recalled in the CM interview. "But I realized early that you have to be your own person, and you can't be like someone else or pattern your career after them. So I just said, 'Hey, I need to be my own self, you know, sing like I do at home, and like I would want to sing myself.'"
Wagoner's new approach struck gold; his 1955 single "A Satisfied Mind" jumped to the Top Ten on the Billboard charts. This success was the first of many: two years later, he was asked to join the Grand Ole Opry, and for the next 27 years, it was rare when Wagoner's name wasn't on the country music countdown. Among his other Top Ten hits were 1956's "What Would You Do (If Jesus Came to Your House)," 1961 's "Your Old Love Letters," the following year's "I've Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand," 1964's "Green, Green Grass of Home," 1968's "Carroll County Accident," and "Big Wind," released in 1969.
In addition, the gospel music that played a big role in Wagoner's musical upbringing continued to influence him. In the mid-1960s, he recorded several albums with the Blackwood Brothers Quartet: Grand Ole Gospel, More Grand Old Gospel, and In Gospel Country. This series of albums netted Wagoner and the Blackwoods three Grammy awards for their work.
"I think some of the records that were made during my careernd, well, let's say from the '60s up to the '80sere some of the greatest records in history because they reflected reality," Wagoner told CM, describing a period when pop-minded Nashville producers like RCA's Chet Atkins reigned supreme on the country music charts. "We are humans in a studio playing music and singing so that you will feel it when you get it into your home. It came more from the heart than... from all this digital material that's there today. All the records today are basically perfect; but they don't have that deep inner feeling that some of the music did back then."
Reminiscing about country music's past, Wagoner admitted: "There's a part of the heart of the business that I truly miss. And I'm talking about songs like Patsy Cline recorded, songs like Hank Williams [Sr.] did. Man, they breathed so much life into 'em. You could feel it in your heart. And now I think it's why fans love one performer today, and somebody else tomorrow, and somebody else the next day and so on down the line, because it's a lot more plastic now than it was in those days."
Throughout the late 1960s, The Porter Wagoner Show remained as popular as ever. Wagoner's leading lady, Miss Norma Jean, whose lovely voice had harmonized on such hits as "I'll Take a Chance on Loving You," left the show in 1967, and he signed a new female accompanist, a young woman who had traveled from her native Tennessee to make it big in Nashville.
That woman was Dolly Parton; together the two would become well known as a duet act, garnering major awards and a number of hits, including 1971's "Burning the Midnight Oil" and 1974's "Please Don't Stop Loving Me." Wagoner and Parton's individual flamboyance blended perfectly: her bouffant hairdos and revealing gowns were a perfect match to his characteristic pompadour and collection of rhinestone-laden Nudie suitsntricately fashioned to the tune of up to $10,000 per ensemble and weighing in at an average 35 pounds each.
The couple's successful partnership lasted until 1974, when Parton made a break from the show to go in her own musical direction. Wagoner went on to record and produce other artists in his Fireside Studio and experimented with non-country influences like soul, pop, and disco. After ending his recording career in 1981, he devoted himself to what he does best: spreading the word on country music. He became the official "goodwill ambassador" for Nashville's Opryland Theme Park and has continued to perform regularly on the Opry stage. During the Opry's off-season, he tours the country, playing an additional ten concerts each year.
From Stage to Sanctuary
In addition to being a consummate entertainer, Wagoner has a distinctive talent for songwriting. Remarking on the contrast between his upbeat public image and the introspective nature of many of his compositions, he explained to CM: "I love to write but it lays real heavy on your mind. Because I'd have to get so involved in ideas, I'd get lost in them, you know.... Whenever I wrote songs, a lot of the times I was in sort of a down mood, an off-time. But I did that to have a contrast, because you can't run wide open all the time, you know."
Wagoner described the writing process that led to the songs he penned for albums like Skid Row Joe: "I had a room in my home that I had designed myself. It was made out of a tent inside of a room. There was no furniture in it. I could go in that room and go almost anyplace I wanted to go in my mind. I had stayed in so many motel and hotel rooms that were all the same thing and I wanted something different when I got home. I think when you just kind of turn your mind loose and let it just wander wherever it will wander, some different things come out of it. I wrote some real different songs by doing that."
Wagoner elaborated on his unique method of songwriting: "One of the first songs that I wrote in this room was called 'The Rubber Room' real far-out song about a guy who went crazy. And it was probably the most unique song of that time that I've written. I started working on some other songs along that linef insanity and so forth. I worked on it a couple of days and I said,'Wow, I'm gonna have to stop this.'Because it was really puttin' me in such a frame of mind I began to worry about myself, you know."
An Eye on Country's Future
From a viewpoint that embraces so much of country music's recent past, Wagoner has begun to look ahead at the future of both the music and its institutions. "I really hate to see people like Bill Monroe, and, well, like myselfhe artists that's been around the business so longove on. You always hate to give up those things, but that's a part of reality. And I hope that the people that follow in Bill Monroe's footsteps and in my footsteps, and the other people I've known like Roy Acuff and so on back down the line, will not stray so far away that it just becomes music, just becomes soundith no history or no heart."
Porter continued, "I hope that a lot of the new people in the industry will look at [country music] as though it's an art form. I hope that they won't just try to be the world's greatest singer, but be an entertainer and a contributor too." In the minds of many fans of country music, Wagoner has been and will continue to be exactly that: an entertainer and a contributor to this uniquely American, much-loved part of our musical inheritance.
A Slice of Lifeongs Happy 'n' Sad, RCA, 1962.
A Satisfied Mind, RCA, 1963.
The Porter Wagoner Show, RCA, 1963.
The Thin Man From West Plains, RCA, 1965.
(With the Blackwood Brothers Quartet) Grand Ole Gospel, RCA, 1966.
The Cold, Hard Facts of Life, RCA, 1967.
(With the Blackwoods) More Grand Ole Gospel, RCA, 1967.
Soul of a Convict, and Other Great Prison Songs, RCA, 1967.
Green, Green Grass of Home, Camden, 1968.
(With the Blackwoods) In Gospel Country, RCA, 1968.
(With Dolly Parton) Always, Always, RCA, 1969.
Carroll County Accident, RCA, 1969.
Skid Row Joeown in the Alley, RCA, 1970.
Blue Moon of Kentucky, Camden, 1971.
Highway Headin' South, RCA, 1974.
Porter Wagoner Today, RCA, 1979.
(With Parton) Porter & Dolly, RCA, 1980.
Porter Wagoner, Dot, 1986.
Eng, Steve, A Satisfied Mind: The Country Music Life of Porter Wagoner, Rutledge Hill Press, 1994.
Official Opry Picture-History Book, Volume 8, edited by Jerry Strobel, Opryland USA, 1992.
Stambler, Irwin, and Gredlun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western, St. Martin's, 1983.
Country Weekly, volume 1, number 9.
Shelton, Pamela, interview with Porter Wagoner, Nashville, TN, June 10, 1994.
Pamela L. Shelton
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