Remembering Porter

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For 50 years, Porter Wagoner starred on the Grand Ole Opry, wearing otherworldly suits and singing about salt-of-the-earth concerns.

The Country Music Hall of Famer died at age 80 tonight, as dignitaries and stars gathered at the Country Music Hall of Fame to induct its three newest members. Mr. Wagoner was admitted to the hospital on Monday, Oct. 15 and had been under doctors’ care since then. Mr. Wagoner was released to hospice care on Friday, days after the announcement of a lung cancer diagnosis.

Known as “The Thin Man From West Plains,” Mr. Wagoner’s contributions to country music are manifold and consequential. Marty Stuart, who produced this year’s much-heralded comeback album Wagonmaster, calls him “an American master and a cornerstone of our music.”

A hit-maker for more than a quarter-century, he was a Country Music Hall of Famer and a three-time Grammy winner whose best-loved singles included “A Satisfied Mind,” “Misery Loves Company” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.”

His syndicated television show allowed him to serve as an ambassador for the genre, and it proved invaluable in spreading the fame of Wagoner’s hand-picked “girl singer,” Dolly Parton, with whom he had hit duets including “Just Someone I Used To Know” and “Making Plans.”

In the studio, he was an innovator who tweaked traditional country arrangements and found fresh sounds in a genre that often tugs against change.

He was among the pioneers of the country “concept album,” releasing song-sets such as “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and “The Cold, Hard Facts of Life” that offered unified themes. As a performer and producer, he sought the beauty of harmony and the reality of dissonance.

He was a tenacious song-scavenger, listening to outside material even during down-time at the Opry in this new millennium, hoping to find hit songs and new ideas. And in the wake of Minnie Pearl’s 1996 death, Mr. Wagoner and Jimmy Dickens became the public faces of the Grand Ole Opry.

Oh, yes, and there were the suits. Mr. Wagoner wasn’t the first to wear a rhinestone suit on the Opry — Dickens has that designation — but he was certainly a famed and ardent devotee of the power of garb.

Backstage in his dressing room, the suits were so heavy that they were hard to hoist with one hand. They must have been hot, and burdensome to wear. But under the lights, on the grand stage, they sparkled and dazzled. Opry patrons would always applaud at the first sight of Wagoner, cheering him as a vision and as a visionary as he welcomed them to the show, professed his pleasure to be there and told a joke or two.

Clothes didn’t make the man, but they accentuated him, and Mr. Wagoner’s stage outfits could be read like rhinestone novels, with glittering wagon wheels and other symbols that told stories of the songs and life of this farmer’s son from Missouri.

Early life

Mr. Wagoner was born in the Ozark Mountains in 1927. His early childhood was marked by the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Wagoners worked to keep their farm alive during a decade in which 18,000 farms foreclosed in the Show Me State.

His older brother, Glenn Lee, taught him to play the guitar, and music became a balm for the hard times.

Young Mr. Wagoner attended a one-room schoolhouse with no heat or water, and in the afternoon the teenager would commandeer an oak tree stump on his family’s property, pretend the stump was the Grand Ole Opry stage and pretend he was introducing Roy Acuff, the King of the Hillbillies. Then he’d leap off the stump, get back on it from the other side and pretend he WAS Acuff, singing “Wabash Cannonball.”

A neighbor once caught this pre-rhinestone act and told the boy, “You’ll still be plowing these mules when you’re 65.”

(Mr. Wagoner turned 65 in August of 1992, without a mule in sight.)

In 1942, brother Glenn Lee died. Mr. Wagoner quit school a few months later, and the farm was soon sold to pay off family debts. Mr. Wagoner worked in a service station, as a butcher and as a truck driver. He also began performing on West Plains radio station KWPM, becoming popular enough to encourage his dream of being a professional singer.

His first break came in 1951 when KWTO in Springfield, Mo., hired him for a show that later became the famous Ozark Jubilee. In 1952, he recorded for RCA Victor, and one year later Carl Smith had a No. 2 country hit with Wagoner’s “Trademark.” Two years later, Wagoner had a Top 10 hit of his own with “Company’s Comin’, and in 1955 he went to No. 1 with “A Satisfied Mind.” Less than two years later, he moved to Nashville and joined the Opry.

‘Appointment television’

In 1960, Mr. Wagoner launched The Porter Wagoner Show, a program that brought country and gospel music into millions of homes. That show became appointment viewing for plenty of people.

“It was the only time of the week I had with my daddy,” Stuart said. “We’d see Porter in black and white on television, and then I got to see him in living color, with the suit on, on the Opry.”

Mr. Wagoner’s television program featured plenty of striking musicians. Buck Trent played an electric banjo that sounded like a steel guitar. Fiddler Mack Magaha was a deft instrumentalist and performer, Speck Rhodes provided comedy, and the singer known as “Pretty Miss Norma Jean” stole hearts and shared duets.

In 1967, Norma Jean left the show, and Wagoner chose an East Tennessee native named Dolly Parton as a replacement. Audiences were at first resistant to Parton, who had a high voice and who tended to talk faster than most Southern ladies, but they warmed to her in part because of the lovely duets she recorded with Mr. Wagoner. Those recordings, coupled with the exposure of the television show, helped launch Parton to her eventual superstar-level success.

The television program reached plenty of viewers who were previously unfamiliar with country music. Two of those viewers were Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Robert Hunter, who served as the Dead’s primary lyricist.

“We (the Dead) were getting off of that psychedelic run that we were on,” said Hunter, who watched the show each week with Garcia in Northern California. “We had evolved from bluegrass and old-timey bands, but what we didn’t know was country & western, or whatever it was that Dolly and Porter were doing. So a little bit of Nashville moved into the Bay Area, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen.”

Hunter eventually made his way backstage at the Opry, where he told that story to Mr. Wagoner, who smiled and said, “Well, I never did hear nothing by that Grateful Dead that I didn’t like.”

In 1972, Mr. Wagoner tried his own bit of psychedelia with the What Ain’t To Be, Just Might Happen album. That one included “Rubber Room,” a song that found him singing “Doom, doom, doom, zoom, room tomb … rubber room” amid waves of reverb.

“People thought I was crazy, man,” Mr. Wagoner said in 2000. “I mean, actually crazy. They thought I’d lost my mind.”

He hadn’t lost his mind, though. He was just trying something new, again. It was the same thing he’d done when he used those tight, trio harmonies on “A Satisfied Mind” in 1955, and when he used a spacey, tremolo effect on “Heartbreak Affair” in 1960.

“Every now and then, you’ve got to rattle the cage a little,” Mr. Wagoner told The Tennessean.

In 1974, after recording 14 Top 10 hits, winning a Grammy and three Country Music Association duo of the year awards with Mr. Wagoner, Parton split with him. Though Parton wrote the gentle “I Will Always Love You” about a breakup that was both personal and professional, the parting turned contentious. In 1978, Mr. Wagoner told The Tennessean he could never trust Parton again. Later, though, the two reunited for performances and they rekindled their friendship. This year, on a show that celebrated his 50th year on the Opry, Mr. Wagoner introduced Parton as “One of my best friends today,” and he wept onstage as Parton sand “I Will Always Love You,” looking right at him.

Mr. Wagoner did not record any country hits after 1983, and talks of a comeback album were halted after he nearly died from an aneurysm in 2006. But he slowly returned to good health, and he and Stuart set about making an album that highlighted his talents. Wagonmaster was released to rave reviews, Mr. Wagoner’s legacy was reevaluated by The New York Times, No Depression magazine and other publications, and Mr. Wagoner wound up opening for rock band The White Stripes at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just so grateful, and feel so good about the fact that God let me live through that aneurysm,” Mr. Wagoner said earlier this year. “I guess I think he had some other things that he wanted me to do.”

Mr. Wagoner’s death was announced tonight by a publicist for the Grand Ole Opry. Mr Wagoner – who was honored on May 19 for his 50 years as an Opry member- died at 8:25 p.m. at Alive Hospice in Nashville.

“The Grand Ole Opry family is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our dear friend, Porter Wagoner. His passion for the Opry and all of country music was truly immeasurable. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time,” says Pete Fisher, vice-president and general manager of The Grand Ole Opry.

Mr. Wagoner is survived by three children, Richard, Debra and Denise.

Visitation and funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.

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