“How can you sell Porter Wagoner to the kids? Nobody wants to be like Porter Wagoner,” griped an agitated Joe South to Rolling Stone writer Jerry Hopkins in 1969, amid a diatribe against the country music of that era. South, the singer/guitarist/composer known for his hit “Games People Play”, had experience in Nashville, and his youth made him an astute observer during the culture wars of that time, when alienation between country and rock fans was often confrontational.
Nonetheless, at the end of his life, Porter Wagoner did sell to “the kids,” few of them even born when he started hawking Goo Goo Clusters on the Opry stage and pitching Black Draught laxative on his weekly syndicated TV show. His 2007 album Wagonmaster, produced by the ever-sympathetic Marty Stuart and released on the Anti- label, generated laudatory articles in ND, Newsweek and elsewhere. Despite his precarious health at 80, the attention, including a gig opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden in July, dazzled him the way his Nudie suits had dazzled millions.
The raw, unadorned candor in his music was no surprise. He was, after all, a man of the Ozarks, a Missourian, of the Midwest, a region with distinct values and an often brutal sense of realism chronicled in literature, in photo books such as Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, and in films such as Fargo. Wagoner songs burgeoned with strange tales, odd characters, and incidents often disturbingly vivid and real. The tragic adultery of “The Carroll County Accident” or the eerie “Jeannie’s Afraid Of The Dark” reflect a more knowing probity than earlier fervent, simplistic homilies of Molly O’Day or Jimmie Osborne, but no less hard-hitting.
Porter Wagoner’s early life shaped it all. Born on a farm near Lanton, Missouri, he attended a one-room schoolhouse and became entranced by the music he heard on KWTO in Springfield and on the Opry. His arthritic father, despite his best efforts, lost the farm and moved his family to West Plains in 1943. A series of odd jobs and part-time musical work eventually led him to the meat counter at Sid Vaughan’s grocery in 1950 and to the radio when Vaughan, who liked his singing, paid for 15 minutes of local radio so Porter could sing and promote the store. In 1951, that modest broadcast led him to KWTO and to Si Siman, who worked in varying capacities around the station and had sent Chet Atkins to RCA’s Steve Sholes in 1947. Now, Siman did the same with Porter.
Wagoner’s first decade with RCA was hit-and-miss until 1954′s staid, moralistic “A Satisfied Mind” and the similar “Eat, Drink And Be Merry (Tomorrow You’ll Cry)” and “What Would You Do (If Jesus Came To Your House)” that set himself apart from nearly everyone. Those successes moved him into the cast of TV’s Ozark Jubilee and, in 1957, onto the Grand Ole Opry.
When Sholes got too busy with Elvis in 1956, Atkins took much of his production work and, by 1957, was creating many tenets of the Nashville Sound. Dropping fiddle and steel and adding choruses to soften a solo vocalist (an idea borrowed from the Big Band era) generated masterpieces for Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Skeeter Davis — but not Porter. Atkins produced Wagoner’s 1964 live album, recorded in West Plains, and gospel efforts pairing him with the Blackwood Brothers. Nonetheless, the disconnect remained, with occasional exceptions such as 1962′s classic “Misery Loves Company”.
Wagoner didn’t really get it his way at RCA until Bob Ferguson took over. Hired to reduce Chet’s production duties amid a growing artist roster (and, some might say, to handle acts Atkins couldn’t relate to), Ferguson had an ear for the unusual that meshed with Wagoner’s idiosyncratic style. Porter hit his artistic stride with “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Skid Row Joe”, “The Cold Hard Facts Of Life” and “The Carroll County Accident” (a Ferguson composition), and the album Confessions Of A Broken Man.
Beyond records, Porter created a universe of his own in an era when many singers were trying to divest themselves of anything too hillbilly. His trademark blond pompadour, his retina-blasting Nudie outfits, and his band the Wagonmasters spoke for themselves. “The Porter Wagoner Show”, his syndicated TV program which began in 1960 sponsored by the Chattanooga Medicine Company, was also an extension of his personality. In those pre-CMT decades, the show’s production values appeared local — part of its charm.
As for Dolly, she’d already been discovered — by Monument Records — when Porter hired her in 1967 at the end of his turbulent professional/personal relationship with Norma Jean. While learning her craft, Parton was afforded opportunities by Porter to refine her writing, and to record remarkable solo material and duets that revealed the magnitude of her talents. His solo masterpieces grew fewer, though he created a true cult favorite in “The Rubber Room”. As Dolly’s star rose, their relationship, too, wound up in rough waters marked by her 1974 departure, lawsuits, and turmoil, even as he continued producing her for RCA.
Turmoil had always been an issue in his life, from the now-infamous 1966 breakdown that landed him in Parkview Hospital to dalliances with disco and his controversial 1979 invitation to James Brown to perform on the Opry, upsetting some fans and a few fellow artists. Any damage proved minimal. Over time, he became the Opry’s public ambassador, their link to an era before marketing-obsessed, dilettantish snots dominated Music Row.
It was altogether fitting and proper that he spend part of his 80th year, exactly half a century after joining the Opry cast, in the autumnal triumph that the Wagonmaster CD brought him. That in the midst of his victory lap lung cancer brought things to a swift and tragic end on October 28 was a stark turn of events. It would have made a fine Porter Wagoner ballad.