Porter Wagoner: Not Ready To Retire The Rhinestones

This appeared in the Hall of Fame Magazine - April 5, 2007

"This is not my last hurrah."

Porter Wagoner isn't ready to hang up his spangled suits. Though 2007 will see both his 80th birthday and his 50th anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry, the singer of such '50s and '60s hits as "A Satisfied Mind" and "Green, Green Grass of Home" doesn't see his new album – Wagonmaster, out in June – as the start of a victory lap.

Perhaps more than any other country-music performer, Wagoner represents the balance – or perhaps the clash – between the music's rural values and changing technology. He is an artist with deeply traditional musical roots who rose to fame by taking advantage of an emerging communications medium.

Wagoner made his first records at a small radio station in Springfield, Missouri, about a hundred miles northwest of his hometown, West Plains, where he was discovered on a radio show that broadcast from the butcher's shop where he worked. Wagoner put 81 singles on the country charts between 1954 and 1981, most famously "A Satisfied Mind," "Green, Green Grass of Home," "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" and several duets with a buxom blonds singer from Sevierville, Tennessee, that he introduced on his syndicated television show.

Right at home: As he’s for 50 years, Porter Wagoner takes charge at the Grand Ole Opry. Before there was CMT, before there was Hee Haw, there was The Porter Wagoner Show. Wagoner took the show on the air in 1960, with the sponsorship of the Chattanooga Medicine Company and a budget of less than $1,000 per episode. The show's 18 affiliates eventually grew to more than 100, making Wagoner – and that curvy protégé, Dolly Parton – arguably the most recognizable country performers of the 1960s.

Re-runs of those shows now air on RFD-TV, a television network in 28 million homes, most of them rural. And that's where Marty Stuart rediscovered them.

"Me and the band would watch Porter Wagoner and the Wagonmasters on the bus before we would go play, whenever possible," says Stuart, who recalls watching the original shows while sitting in his father's lap on Saturday afternoons in Mississippi.

Stuart once appeared on the show, as a teenage member of guitarist Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. And since he and Wagoner also shared Opry membership, so he invited Wagoner to join him for a segment of the show in February of 2006, and the two performed an old Hank Williams recitation, "Be Careful of the Stones You Throw."

Stuart soon convinced Wagoner to let him produce an album for the older singer, and they began sorting through songs, old and new. But their plans to go into the studio were derailed when Wagoner woke up early last July 14 in excruciating pain.

"I called my son, Richard, a 3 o'clock in the morning, and he got me to the hospital," Wagoner says. "The doctor said he's the one I really need to give credit to. He got me there in a hurry."

Wagoner had emergency surgery for an abdominal aneurysm, the same thing that killed country singer Conway Twitty.

"It's taking me a long time to get my strength back," he says. "I wondered if I'd ever be able to sing, once I had gotten well. I had breathing problems. I got over that. It was a little difficult for me, but I'm so glad that I got to where I could sing again."

The Thin Man From West Plains looks a little thinner these days. He has returned to the Opry stage, though his 50th anniversary, in February, went almost unnoticed. The Opry spends its winter months at the Ryman Auditorium – the show's regular home from 1943 until 1974 – but despite the history and mythology that surrounds it, Wagoner prefers the more spacious Grand Ole Opry House, which is closer to his house and where he has his own dressing room filled with photographs, comfortable furniture and a small television. So the singer waited until the show returned to the Opry House in March to resume regular appearances. The Opry plans to officially commemorate Wagoner's milestone around the time of Wagonmaster's release.

Wagoner and Stuart recorded Wagonmaster in a Nashville studio in December, and Stuart is convinced that an entirely new generation of listeners is ready Wagoner, that the same hipsters who embraced Johnny Cash late in life will also be enthralled by Wagoner's gaudy stagewear, his serious-minded sentimentality, his penchant for macabre stories and eccentric characters.

"It's real country music, it's authentic country music," Stuart says. "It's way beyond product. It's the heart and soul of a man. It's the sum of a life's experience. It's the remnant of that old cloth that so little is left of, from the Hank Williams era. It's just a tiny remnant, but, man, is it a good one."

By Brian Mansfield

Return To Articles Return To Home Page