Now nearing 94 and confined to a wheelchair, Carlisle explored many styles of music — from blues to gospel — before settling into the comic routines that gave him an image and his greatest chart successes. Wagoner, who is 75, remains the nimble, dapper, bespangled icon of the Opry — as well as the man associated with discovering Dolly Parton (who preceded him into the Hall of Fame by three years). Undercelebrated as songwriters, both men have written country classics.
According to George Riddle, who plays in Carlisle’s band, the elderly Kentuckian found out about his honor from Grand Ole Opry manager Pete Fisher the evening before it was officially announced.
Speaking through Riddle, Carlisle said, “I want to dedicate my induction to my late brother, Cliff, who was my singing partner for years. Thanks to the members of the CMA who voted for me. I’ve tried always to entertain my fans and make new friends. Having them see me as a member of the Hall of Fame is very satisfying. I’m honored to be in that elite circle.”
Carlisle performed and recorded with his older brother, Cliff, from the early 1930s until 1950, although he often worked during this period with his own band. Like most country performers of that era, Carlisle moved from one live radio show to another as he built his reputation, playing at stations in Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee. The Carlisle Brothers scored their first chart hit — Rainbow at Midnight” — in 1946.
Carlisle’s biggest records as a solo artist came during the early ’50s when he posted such novelty hits as “Too Old to Cut the Mustard,” “No Help Wanted” and “Knot Hole,” all of which he wrote. He also wrote “Gone Home,” which has now become a gospel standard. Carlisle joined the Opry in 1953. His habit of leaping into the air while he was singing earned him the sobriquet “Jumping Bill.” Late in the 1990s, he would delight his audiences by shuffling onstage with a “walker” and then thrusting the device jubilantly over his head as he became involved in his song. Riddle says he expects Carlisle to be on hand to accept his honor.
“The first I heard about [being inducted],” says Wagoner, “was on the Grand Ole Opry — from the Dixie Chicks . Pete Fisher had told me that they wanted me to be there to introduce me during their spot, but he didn’t tell me what for. It startled me. I had no idea what they were talking about, because you couldn’t hear the monitors where we were, over by the backstage area. When they called my name and introduced me, I went up there, and they said, ‘What do you think about that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think that’s really great.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I didn’t know any other answer.”
Wagoner grew up poor in and around West Plains, Mo. While he was still in his teens, he met Grand Old Opry megastar Roy Acuff, who encouraged him to pursue his interest in music. In 1952, he signed to RCA Records but did not chart his first single for the label until 1954. The next year, he achieved his first No. 1, “A Satisfied Mind.” Among the No. 1 and Top 5 hits that followed were “Misery Loves Company,” “Sorrow On the Rocks,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Skid Row Joe,” “The Carol County Accident” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
He launched his syndicated television series, The Porter Wagoner Show, in 1960. It soon became a showcase for most country artists on their way up. In 1967, Wagoner’s “girl singer,” Norma Jean, left the show and was replaced by rising star Dolly Parton. From that point on, Wagoner was instrumental in Parton’s career, mentoring her on the show, on the road as a part of his band and in the recording studio. Beginning in 1967, they recorded a torrent of hit duets, including “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Yours Love,” “Just Someone I Used To Know,” “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me” and “Making Plans.” In 1968, they won the CMA’s vocal group of the year trophy and in 1970 and 1971 the top vocal duo prize.
Of the many songs Wagoner wrote or co-wrote were “Highway Headin’ South,” “Pain of Lovin’ You,” “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me” and “The Right Combination.” Parton and Wagoner discontinued their professional relationship in the mid-’70s, but his television showed continued until 1981. During the ’90s, he served as Opryland USA’s “goodwill ambassador” and as a spokesman for the Grand Ole Opry. He has won three Grammys, all for gospel recordings.
Earlier this year, Wagoner released a solo album, Unplugged, and, more recently, a duet collection, Porter & Penny, with his current singing partner, Penny DeHaven. Next year, he says, he may put together a video package of performances from his old TV shows.
Wagoner admits he views his induction as a bit tardy. “I felt like I should have been in a few years back because I’ve done a lot for the music business, done a lot for country music and the Grand Ole Opry. And that’s really what it’s all about, I think.”
Famed for his tailored, ornately decorated stagewear, Wagoner offers little detail on what he’ll be clad in when he accepts his prize. “I’m going to wear a brand new suit that’s made by the guy who makes all my clothes for the stage,” he says. “You’ll just have to look in that night to see what it is.”