Words of Wisdom – Porter Wagoner, 79, Nashville, TN


By A. D. Amorosi

From the cornball to the cutting; from the recitation to the rockabilly-ish; from the honky tonk-y to the heavenly: Porter Wagoner was there. Still is. Since signing with RCA in the ’50s, Wagoner’s been the Wagonmaster, the thin man and one of country music’s most recognizable figures—visually, with his foot-high hair and Nudie suits, and musically, after having maintained a long career of frank lyricism and a dizzyingly diverse sound. Even as an entrepreneur, he was an innovator. Along with mentoring one-time duet partner Dolly Parton (she wrote “I Will Always Love You” about him), Wagoner owned the publishing rights to his songs and created his own syndicated music-television show long before MTV (or Hee Haw). Wagoner hasn’t slowed much, even though he’s just recovered from abdominal aneurysm surgery. After several years of making gospel records, the soft-spoken Wagoner has returned to the gentlemanly country fold with the lean, mean, rich sounds of yore, courtesy Anti-Records, on the Marty Stuart-produced Wagonmaster.

Despite my honky-tonk country past, jailhouse concept records included, I am not a bad man. That is not my secret. No sir. It is not. I’m a Christian man now.

I really didn’t know I’d make another country album. I’ve been making gospel albums the last few years. But deep down in my soul, I guess country was still in me. It’s in my blood; part of my being. Blame Marty Stuart for pulling this out of me.

The guitar? It was a way of life. I was born and raised on a farm without the luxury of television. I was just a country boy when my mama ordered me one out of a catalog; a Sears & Roebuck one, I believe. There I was, 12 years old, and I really learned to play that sucker.

The first song I ever wrote was called “Look What Followed Me Home Tonight.” The rest of that line was “Mama, can I keep it?” “It” happened to be a girl. Everybody thought it might be a dog. But it was not. [laughs] And yes, I was 10.

I had my own look? I suppose I did. When Nudie [Cohn, famed country clothier] made me that first rhinestone sequin-covered suit I knew it was a work of art. I decided to wear those forevermore throughout my career. I still wear them today. I have like 55 of them. Oh yes. I even designed a few.

The pompadour! It grew on me, I suppose. I really felt it looked good on me.

There used to be this myth that if you were on television, you wouldn’t draw people to your next auditorium appearance. Why would they pay to see you when they could stay at home and get you for free is how that logic went. But I knew that couldn’t be right. If they saw me on TV they’d want to see me in person. If they like you. And I was right.

I was good on television because I came across as an honest person. If I told you Dove soap was wonderful I could sell you on that. That’s a long suit that a lot of people don’t have: believability. For instance, I had this one sponsor for 11 years, Black Draft Laxative. If you tell a person that works, it had better work.

Johnny [Cash] sent “Committed to Parkview” to me because we had shared that experience. I was admitted there years ago. My doctor felt like I needed to be there because I went off the beaten path for a bit. I was doing strange things. So I spent a week or so in that hospital. It don’t mean I had to be crazy to be admitted; just to make it that I didn’t go crazy; get my mind leveled out. And I never had that problem again.

If you’re talking about mortality, “The Late Love of Mine” might be my favorite song on the album. I did some really deep thinking on that, more than any other on the album. It’s about a guy who drank a lot. I never drank in my whole life. I had a brother who was an alcoholic and I seen so much of the embarrassment he caused my mother when he came home drunk. It just made me ashamed. That’s how I came to “strong drink is made for the weak ones/I’m trying to bury the memories.” That’s my brother.

My brother was my true inspiration. A good guitar player, he was. Died when he was 15 years old—it was an enlargement of the heart. Glenn Lee Wagoner.

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