Porter Wagoner has been entertaining audiences for 50 years! To celebrate his golden anniversary as a performer, some of his friends got together for a tribute. Friends like Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Connie Smith, Steve Wariner, and Dolly Parton all performed Porter’s music at the Grand Ole Opry House for the upcoming TNN special, Company’s Comin’: A Tribute To Porter Wagoner, airing Tuesday, August 5 from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Porter’s career was launched in the1940s when he landed his first job singing on his hometown radio station, KWPM, in West Plaines, Missouri. When executives from KWTO in Springfield, Missouri heard Porter, they hired him to sing at their much larger station, and Porter never looked back. From radio, to records, to television, to the Grand Ole Opry, Porter Wagoner continues to delight country music fans.
In 1957, Porter became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and 40 years later still considers his membership one of the milestones of his career. “Becoming a member of the Opry in 1957 is probably the highlight of my whole career. To me that is the most important show in country music and to be a member! It is the most elite club to belong to that I have ever heard of. It only has 70 some members. To be one of those is a really thrill,” said Porter from his office in Nashville, TN.
Porter still remembers that first performance. “I was just really nervous the first time I was on the Opry, because I knew the importance of it to any person getting into country music. They really made me feel right at home. The audience did and also the people who ran the Opry. It was a real memorable occasion.” he reminisces.
“I did a song that I’d written called “That’s My Trademark” then I had out another song called “Company’s A Comin’.” The second time I was on the Opry I did “Satisfied Mind” which was a hit for me and that made it even better! Once you have a hit song and people recognize you the moment you start into it is a big thrill!”
Country music fans who attend the Grand Ole Opry today can still experience that thrill! These days Porter performs at the Opry three days a week. “You know what? It is a strange thing. Although I’ve been a member of the Opry for 40 years, I get more applause now than I ever did in my entire career! Even more than when I had the number one records like “Green Green Grass of Home” and “Carroll County Accident,” and “Satisfied Mind.” I don’t know if that is out of sympathy or what, but it is really true,” mused Porter.
In addition to radio, in 1960 Porter started the syndicated Porter Wagoner Show which aired on TV for over 20 years. His program has had a profound influence on the shape of country music today as Vince Gill testifies, “I can’t tell you what watching that TV show every week did for me wanting to learn how to do this. Without folks like Porter, I never would have.”
Dolly Parton joined the Porter Wagoner Show in 1967. The next seven years earned the twosome 14 top ten hits and five Vocal Duet of the Year awards (two from the Country Music Association and three from the Academy of Country Music). Steve Wariner speaks about watching Porter and Dolly on the show. “You know, when I was a kid growing up, the week just wasn’t complete without watching the Porter Wagoner show – with Porter, all the great players, and oh yes Dolly. I think that was my Dad’s favorite part of the show. Of course, I remember watching and waiting for Dolly myself a few times,” he coyly admits.
These days, Porter is the official ambassador for Opryland Themepark. Porter says on a typical day, he goes to the park from 11:00 a.m. – 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., “I meet fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures with them. That’s pretty exciting because when people hear you sing, that is one thing, but when they can take a picture home with them of them meeting you, why that’s a pretty important thing to them. When they come to Opryland or Nashville, it being Music City, they want to see stars and the music. It is really thrilling to meet them and see the excitement they have for just being here in the middle of where country music was born.”
“Every weekend I perform on the Grand Ole Opry, two shows on Friday night and two shows on Saturday night.”
When Porter is not working, he spends time at home with his animals. ” I live right across the street from Opryland and I have four horses. I like to ride them and fool with them. I have a couple of dogs. I love to be outside. I think that is one of the ways I stay in pretty good shape–running around with my dogs and my horses. I enjoy that very much, because I am really a country boy,” laughs Porter.
He might be “country,” but he sure has a keen fashion sense. Porter’s infamous for his flashy rhinestone and sequinned-laden outfits created by world renowned designer, Manuel. Porter professes, “Manuel is a tailoring genius. You know he has not only made clothes for me, but for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart and all of the really important people that have been around entertainment.”
Porter said that Manuel comes up with all of the design ideas, but that he had the idea to add the greeting “Hi” on the inside. He illustrates, “You know, in the summer time, you get kinda warm when you are on stage. I was always opening my coat, and I thought it would be kind of neat if it said something there. One of the other ideas that was mine too was having the cut-away part on the front of the coat. I would pay like $8,000 or $9,000 for a silver or gold belt buckle, and no one would see it but me. I thought, ’I need something there that will let them know I have a real nice belt buckle as well.'” Porter adds one new suit to his collection each year, and estimates he has 56 outfits in his closet!
In addition to continuing to set fashion trends, Porter continues to record. He just completed a “We Are The World” style recording session of the song “In The Shade Of The Family Tree.” Porter adds, “It is terrific! I’m very excited about it. Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Patti Loveless, Tricia Yearwood, Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart, and Ricky Skaggs all sing with me on the project. I had an 112-voice choir of the whole Grand Ole Opry plus a lot of my other friends that recorded all in one room at the same time. We recorded it in the old RCA Studio A. The only studio large enough to hold all the people.
“I think the fans will really love it. The Grand Ole Opry is like a family because all the people are members. It is like one big family really. There is not competitiveness there. We are all working for the same goal, to make country music bigger and better than it has ever been.” The song is going to be included on a CD in the upcoming Chicken Soup For The Country Soul book.
If that wasn’t enough, Porter is also writing stories for Garth Brooks’ magazine The Believer. Porter explains, “Garth asked me to write a couple of stories for it about our relationship and our being close friends.
“I met him before he came to the Opry. I think he had just one record out. He was on my show every time when he was on the Opry. I feel he has done more for country music than any other single individual that I have known in my career. He has really got a lot of people interested in the Grand Ole Opry and country music in general. You can’t overlook that. He’s just really a nice man. He’s done a lot of things for me. I just enjoy seeing him at the Opry. He makes history at every performance. He’s had 183 straight sold out concerts and performed to over 2.5 million people in person in the past year. It is a powerful thing, and he is still such a normal, down to earth person.
“When I asked Garth to sing on this record with me, he was so nice about it he said, ’Man, I would love to sing on a record with you.’ He really made me feel like I was doing him a favor by asking him. That’s nice to have people who you admire a whole lot do that for you. It is an exciting time for me.”
Company’s A Comin’
What strikes you when you watch the special is how many of the artists speak about how Porter has truly affected their lives and how much they admire him.
Joe Diffie performs Porter’s 1969 CMA Song of The Year, “Carroll County Accident,” and talks about how Porter was on stage when he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Joe said, “There’s nobody in country music any more genuine and friendly and real than Porter Wagoner” Travis Tritt echoes him by saying thanks to Porter, “for putting the show in show business.”
Patti Loveless reminisces about meeting Porter at age 14, when she first came to Nashville to become a star. Porter suggested she finish her education, but offered to let her come out on the road to some shows he and Dolly were doing. The duo took Patti under their wing to help her get her start in the music business. The special gave her a chance to thank them. She said, “I just want to thank you – Dolly and Porter both. You have been some special people in my life and some special angels.”
Vince Gill sings, “Green, Green Grass of Home” and congratulates Porter. “I think 50 years is awesome! You are my buddy, and I appreciate getting to be your friend. I never thought that would happen in a million years. To get to stand with you some nights on this stage is the greatest gift of all. You deserve this night. Congratulations!”
Porter comments, “When Vince sang ’Green, Green Grass of Home,’ it was a wonderful, wonderful thrill. In fact, I told him after the show, ’Well, the gospel groups can start doing the ’Green, Green Grass of Home,’ because you sang all the “Hell” out of it!'”
Of course, no Porter special would be complete without a performance from Dolly Parton! Recalling how Wagoner inspired her to write, “I Will Always Love You.” She admits, “When I wanted to go out on my own, we had a hard time making that separation…I thought ’how can I make this hard-headed man listen to me and tell him how I feel, that I love him, and I appreciate it, but I’ve got to go on and do some more stuff,’ so finally I asked God to help me with it, so I got this feeling — why don’t you do what you do best? — put your feelings in a song.” Dolly performs the song for Porter with a little help from Vince Gill.
Porter sums it up saying, “It was a breathtaking night for me! I’ve never been that nervous in my whole career, honestly! You sit down and see your whole career come up in front of you. People you love and admire singing your songs. That’s a marvelous thrill!”