Forgotten Music Star Makes Comeback
|This appeared on FoxNews.com - August 9, 2007|
Porter Wagoner looks right at home in the marble lobby of Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel. He wears a dark Western suit and tie and holds a shiny black cane. The glare from the crystal chandelier reflects off his eyeglasses as he tilts his head back, trying to remember the last time he played Madison Square Garden.
Sometime in the '70s ... one of those package tours ... Little Jimmie Dickens and Faron Young were there ... some others he can't recall ...
Back then, "The Thin Man from West Plains" was still the grand showman of country music with his rhinestone suits and pompadour hair. He had a TV show and dozens of hits on his own and with a pretty young blonde named Dolly Parton.
All that faded with time, and so did Wagoner. He checked into a psychiatric hospital for exhaustion, his show went off the air, he was dropped from his record label and dismissed as a relic. Last summer he nearly died.
Except for his standing gig on the Grand Ole Opry, he was mostly forgotten.
"I was thinking while on stage last night, 'This is the biggest, most well-known arena in the country, and here I am performing at it,'" he says the morning after a show with the White Stripes.
Only a few months ago, Wagoner, who's about to turn 80, would have said he'd done and seen everything in this business, that nothing could surprise him.
Boy, would he have been wrong.
The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, is nearly full as the red curtain rises and the band plays a fast, choppy rhythm.
Wagoner comes out in a sparkly blue suit, dark pink shirt and white cowboy boots and sings a sprightly old tune about a moonshiner. His long face is creased, his once-golden hair silvery gray.
"Thank you all. Welcome to the show. It's good to be with you tonight."
The Opry has been Wagoner's weekend routine for as long as many can remember. As host and performer, he's the personification of the long-running country music show, much as Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff once were.
"He's relaxed, informal, folksy. Porter is country and rightly proud of it," says John Rumble, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame, of which Wagoner has been a member since 2002.
Wagoner dreamed of this since he was a farm boy in West Plains, Missouri, a small town in the Ozark Mountains.
When he was about 10, his dad cut down a large tree in the backyard and left him a stump for a stage. He'd spend hours up there introducing his Opry "guests" and singing their songs.
He started in radio then became a regular on the "Ozark Jubilee," one of the first televised national country music shows.
Television was still young, but Wagoner saw potential others didn't.
"Everyone I talked to about television, people in the music business, told me, 'You better not be doing television on a regular basis or people won't come to see you. Why buy a ticket if they can see you on television?' Well, that was a myth. It wasn't true."
The budding star lit out for Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-'50s where he joined Acuff, Pearl, Bill Monroe and all the others he'd idolized.
He'd finally arrived, he thought. And yet his biggest break was still a few years off.
"Me and my sidekick here -- she just kicked me in the side," a sideburned Wagoner cracks to the camera.
"Not yet, but I think I will after this," she shoots back.
"If you ever hit me and I find out, Dolly Parton, you'll be in trouble."
"Would you 'Run That by Me One More Time,'" she giggles as they begin one of their many duets.
"The Porter Wagoner Show" aired from 1960 until 1981, reaching more than 100 markets and 3.5 million viewers. The format was loose and down-home, blending comedy and music from Wagoner's dapper band, the Wagonmasters, and a variety of guests.
"Porter carries on the tradition of people like Roy Acuff, who came out of that vaudeville past. What they preached was that you wanted them laughing one minute and crying the next _ a complete span of emotion," says Steve Buchanan, vice president for media and entertainment at Gaylord Entertainment, owner of the Grand Ole Opry.
Parton, all baby-faced and bouffant-haired, wasn't Wagoner's first or only female singing partner, but she certainly became his most famous. She joined the show in 1967, replacing the popular Norma Jean.
As Wagoner recalls, her debut was a disaster.
"The first couple of days were pretty tough for her because she didn't know how to talk to people. She talked so fast and was real nervous on stage. She was afraid they wouldn't like her, and they didn't like her at first because they didn't know her."
To ease the transition, he'd have her sing duets with him. They were witty and sassy together and had a run of hits.
But they clashed over the music and the show, and in 1974 Parton left. The split was messy with Wagoner suing over contractual issues and the two settling out of court in 1980.
Today, Wagoner says they were always on good terms.
"Dolly and I never had a problem, and we don't today. But it's a fact that when you're involved with attorneys and companies that have them on retainer, it makes a different story."
There were other issues off-camera. He was separated from his second wife (his first marriage, when he was just 16, was annulled after less than a year). He was doing 200 concerts a year besides television and records. He was exhausted.
In 1966 his doctor admitted him to Parkview, a former Nashville psychiatric hospital. His friend Johnny Cash later wrote a song called "Committed to Parkview" that was pitched to Wagoner in a roundabout way.
"I was just wore out," Wagoner says. "My doctor said the thing you must do is check yourself in somewhere where you can get rest. So he checked me in at Parkview and I think I stayed eight or 10 weeks. I don't know how many. But when I came out I was well."
Fittingly, a lot of Wagoner's songs, many of which he wrote or co-wrote, have a dark quality. In "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" a husband catches his cheating wife with her lover and kills them with a knife. In the "Carroll County Accident," the narrator discovers that the married man killed in a crash was in the car because he was having an affair. "Skid Row Joe" deals with a once-famous singer who's lost everything and wound up a drunk.
The strangest, though, is "The Rubber Room," a quirky piece of music from the early '70s about a man who went insane.
"Lyrically, he's right in that realistic country music groove that taps back into folk tradition all the way back to the Elizabethan ballads that did not mince words in describing highwaymen and murder and rapes and everything else," Rumble says.
Wagoner chuckles at the thought of being a twangy Vincent Price. Even today, he says, audiences sometimes applaud when the knife comes out in "The Cold Hard Facts of Life."
Sitting in his living room, he begins a spooky recitation from a song he wrote called "Divers Are Out Tonight" about a man looking out the window of his prison cell: "As I sat here looking through the window, the moon is shining like day, I can see clear across the Big Sandy River, a quarter of a mile each way."
He goes on about seeing divers in the river and watching them uncover a money box stolen from the bank. Then he begins to sing in a low voice, "So I think I'll call for the warden, maybe the guard just outside. Tell them the money that they think I stole, is being recovered tonight. Oh, but they won't believe me either, not a jury man thought I was right. When I told them I didn't steal the money, now the divers they found it tonight. Oh, but I won't receive my freedom, I can hear 'em talking below. The divers dividing the money, and I've got five long years to go."
His home is modest by celebrity standards, a brick ranch on a winding two-lane road maybe five minutes from the Grand Ole Opry House. The only tip-off to its owner is an iron gate with an intercom at the drive. Inside, Wagoner wears a brown button shirt and khaki pants as he sinks into a cloth chair.
"I stopped making records because I didn't like the way they were wanting me to record," he sighs. "When RCA dropped me from the label, I didn't really care about making records for another label because I didn't have any say in what they would release and how they would make the records and so forth."
That was 1981, after he had been with RCA almost 30 years. Except for the Grand Ole Opry and some work on the now defunct Nashville Network, his career dried up like an old corn stalk.
"All I wanted to do really is work the Opry. I kind of lost the will to ... the business was changing and I didn't want to change my style of music and stuff."
His slow comeback began in 2004 with a series of gospel records. Soon, he and Marty Stuart, a fellow Opry member with an appreciation for country's past, were plotting an album that would recreate the sound and feel of Wagoner's vintage recordings.
Stuart, 49, a former child prodigy who's worked with Cash and many others, would produce it. But as they prepared to start last summer, Wagoner suffered a near-fatal abdominal aneurysm.
"Our thinking was that if I live through the aneurysm and get well, we'll do the album as soon as I'm ready to do it. So when I first started getting well from that surgery and everything, Marty and I started talking on the telephone to each other. He said, 'As soon as you feel like singing, let me know and we'll start out working a half hour a day. And when you get tired, tell me and we'll stop right there.'"
They ended up recording the 17 tracks in just three days. Stuart went so far as to have the musicians watch tapes of "The Porter Wagoner Show" to learn the nuances of the music and the era.
He shopped the album around Nashville but got nowhere. Music Row wasn't interested in a 79-year-old singer.
"I talked to just about everybody in this town. There was always a good reason why not to do it," Stuart says. "I kind of expected that before I went downtown, but I wanted to try downtown first because it's home."
They signed with ANTI- records, an eclectic Los Angeles label best known for alt-rock acts like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Neko Case.
Released in June, "Wagonmaster" accomplishes what they set out to do. Unlike Cash's late-career masterworks, there are no superstar guests or indie rock covers, just lots of fiddle and steel guitar backing Wagoner's grainy baritone.
The songs -- nine of which Wagoner wrote or co-wrote -- are homespun tales rich in characters and imagery. "Albert Erving" is about a lonely recluse who keeps a wooden picture of a woman he carved from his imagination. Cash's "Committed to Parkview" tells of the sad inhabitants of the institution, one of whom stares at the floor and thinks he's Hank Williams. "My Many Hurried Southern Trips" finds a bus driver observing the troubled souls aboard his bus.
Hailed as an unvarnished slice of Southern Gothic, the album brought Wagoner some of the best reviews of his career. A pair of well-received club shows in New York and Los Angeles bore them out. A new crop of fans in their '20s and 30s were discovering him.
Then came the kicker: An invitation from one of the biggest acts in the country, the White Stripes, to open their sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
On the eve of his 80th birthday, Porter Wagoner was suddenly and improbably hip again.
It's easy to be awed by this place. Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali here. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton received their nominations here. Pope John Paul visited.
None of this is lost on Wagoner, who takes the stage in blue rhinestones.
"This is one of the tremendous thrills of my career to be here tonight in Madison Square Garden. God bless you," he says.
Backed by Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, he performs seven songs. The crowd is still arriving as he plays, but even the most pierced and tattooed of the bunch seem curious.
His voice grows stronger with the first rain of applause, and when he gets to one of his biggest hits, "Green, Green Grass of Home," a good bit of the audience is singing along.
When he's finished, he walks gingerly across the stage while the band plays a bouncy outro. A stagehand helps him off, and in a moment, he's gone.
The next morning, in the elegant Roosevelt Hotel lobby, he's still taking it all in.
"The young people I met backstage, some of them were 20 years old. They wanted to get my autograph and tell me they really liked me. If only they knew how that made me feel, like a new breath of fresh air. To have new fans now is a tremendous thing."
Tears well in his eyes and one streams down his gaunt cheek. And just then one has to wonder whether "The Thin Man from West Plains" finally has seen everything.
By John Gerome
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