R. I. P. Porter Wagoner

  • R. I. P. Porter Wagoner


    October 30, 2007
    Porter Wagoner, Singer, Dies at 80
    Porter Wagoner, a country singer who mixed rhinestone suits, a towering pompadour and cornball jokes with direct, simple songs over a career best known for his partnership with Dolly Parton, died last night in Nashville. He was 80.

    His death, in a Nashville hospice, was announced by the Grand Ole Opry. Mr. Wagoner, who survived an abdominal aneurysm last year, was hospitalized this month with lung cancer, his publicist, Darlene Bieber, had said. Mr. Wagoner had 81 singles on the country charts, 29 of them in the Top 10. His many hits, typically songs seeking honest answers to hard questions, included “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Skid Row Joe” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

    For 21 years, appearing on television in flashy suits and a cotton-candy pompadour, he was the host of “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which was eventually syndicated in 100 markets, reaching 3.5 million viewers a week.

    Mr. Wagoner recorded some of country music’s earliest concept albums, in which individual tracks combine in a thematic whole. On one, titled “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” (1972), he explored insanity with songs that included “Rubber Room,” derived from his experience in a psychiatric ward. He won three Grammys for gospel recordings he made with the Blackwood Brothers.

    For more than half a century, Mr. Wagoner was a fixture of the Grand Ole Opry; in 1992, after the death of Roy Acuff, he became its unofficial spokesman. And if Mr. Wagoner did not exactly discover Ms. Parton, her regular appearances on his television show were the foundation of her career. They won the Country Music Association’s award for duo of the year three times.

    Though Mr. Wagoner never achieved the sort of country music sainthood accorded Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, his pure adherence to traditional forms became esteemed. Waylon Jennings once said, “He couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.”

    In its citation honoring his induction in 1992, the Country Music Hall of Fame called Mr. Wagoner “one of country’s elder statesmen.”

    Yet he was hardly shy about making waves. After Ms. Parton left his show in 1974, there ensued a six-year, very public legal mess — and not a few tawdry tabloid headlines. One asserted that Mr. Wagoner’s wife had found him and Ms. Parton in bed and shot both.

    “There wasn’t nothing to that,” Mr. Wagoner said “with a wink” in an interview with The Tennessean in 2000. “She didn’t even hit Dolly.”

    Mr. Wagoner riled country traditionalists in 1979 by inviting James Brown, the godfather of soul, to the Opry. Though Mr. Brown performed the country standards “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Tennessee Waltz,” which Mr. Wagoner had taught him, his rendition of his own “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” generated hate mail.

    Mr. Wagoner’s life had elements of an old-fashioned country song. He was born on Aug. 12, 1927, on a farm where mules still pulled the plow, not far from West Plains, Mo., in the Ozark mountains. He sold the pelts of rabbits he trapped to scrape together the $8 he needed to buy his first guitar, a National, from Montgomery Ward. He spent hours pretending that the stump of a felled oak tree was the Opry stage and that he was introducing country stars.

    After the family was forced to auction off their farm in the Depression, they moved to West Plains, where a local butcher hired Mr. Wagoner. When he heard him play the guitar, he put him on the radio to sing advertisements. Mr. Wagoner then moved to a station in Springfield, Mo., and signed a record contract in 1952 with Steve Sholes, the same RCA producer who signed Elvis Presley three years later.

    In 1953, Mr. Wagoner spent $350 to buy his first Nudie suit, one of the extravagant rhinestone-studded creations by the tailor Nudie Cohn. Mr. Wagoner’s was a peach-colored number with wagon wheels on it. He eventually owned 50 of them, for which he paid as much as $12,000 apiece. A special feature on most was the word “Hi!” in foot-high letters on each side of the lining. He would throw the jacket open when he saw somebody snapping his picture.

    Mr. Wagoner recorded, performed in a local television show, joined the Opry and in 1960 started his own television show. In 1967, his vocal partner, Norma Jean, left, and Ms. Parton succeeded her. In addition to doing the show, the two recorded and toured together. They had a string of hit duets, including “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” which they wrote. It was No. 1 in October 1974.

    Mr. Wagoner had several long periods when he did not record or tour. He sometimes explained that there was little good material available. The lyrics in at least two of his songs came from spending time in a Nashville mental hospital. One, “Committed to Parkview,” was written by Johnny Cash about a Nashville institution in which both men had stayed. It is part of an album Mr. Wagoner released last year, “The Rubber Room: The Haunting Poetic Songs of Porter Wagoner, 1966-1967.”

    As a teenager Mr. Wagoner was married for a short time to Velma Johnson. In 1946, he married Ruth Olive Williams; they separated in 1966 and divorced in 1986. He is survived by his children, Richard, Denise and Debra.

    As a songwriter, Mr. Wagoner was known for producing surprising literary twists. At the end of “Green, Green Grass of Home,” it is revealed that the story about a happy homecoming is the dream of a prisoner. On “I Knew This Day Would Come,” a young woman leaves her aging husband for a young lover, only to find herself in the same situation years later.

    For all Mr. Wagoner’s accomplishments, he could not escape a certain question.“Did you sing with Dolly?” too many people asked.

    “No,” he would say with a smile. “She sang with me.”

    Porter Wagoner is one of the great voices in American Music. Any lover of traditional country music, or any of its kissin' cousins (llike Americana) will miss him greatly.

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