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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Hillbilly-Music.com: Other Links of Related Interest:
- Grand Ole Opry Legend Porter Wagoner Succumbs to Lung Cancer - Grand Ole Opry Press Release
- Country Legend Porter Wagoner Dead At 80 - WSMV TV
- Porter Wagoner, 80; Grand Ole Opry star - Los Angeles Times
- Porter Wagoner, Singer, Dies at 80 - New York Times
- Country star Wagoner dies at 80 - BBC (UK)
- Porter Wagoner Remembered - KAIT (Channel 8, Jonesboro, AR)
- Country star Porter Wagoner, 80, succumbs to lung cancer - Lansing State Journal (Michigan)
- Country Music Showman Wagoner Dies - Newswire (New Zealand)
- Porter Wagoner - The Independent (UK)
- Dolly Sang to her Former Duet Partner in His Last Hours - WVLT-TV (Nashville, TN)
- Remembering Porter Wagoner - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
- Porter Wagoner, country singer, dies at 80 - International Herald Tribune
- Remembering country music legend Porter Wagoner - New York Daily News
- Country Singer Porter Wagoner Dies - New York Times
- PORTER WAGONER | 1927 - 2007 - Fort Worth Star-Telegram
- Porter Wagoner remains hospitalized with lung cancer - Springfield News-Leader (Oct 23)
- Country singer Porter Wagoner dies at 80 - Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
- Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner dies - KYTV (Channel 3) Springfield, Missouri
- Editorial: Wagoner was classic country music star - The Tennessean
- Americana musical salute for Wagoner turned into memorial - The Tennessean
- Porter Wagoner was Missouri native - KFVS (Channel 12) Cape Girardeau, MO
- Country star Porter Wagoner dies - Arizona Republic
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