The display cases at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum are sparkling a little brighter after the new exhibit, Porter Wagoner: The Rhinestone Troubadour, opened Friday (July 15) in downtown Nashville.
Among the artifacts are Wagoner’s pair of Nudie-designed green patent leather cowboy boots and his 1966 Grammy for best sacred performance for Grand Ole Gospel, one of several collaborations with the Blackwood Brothers. Still active on the Grand Ole Opry, Wagoner and Dolly Parton recently reunited in the studio. Wagoner says the duet, “Those Were the Days,” is scheduled to be included on Parton’s upcoming album.
Wagoner, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002, gave CMT News a private preview of his exhibit and sat down for a few questions.
CMT: Why did you want to donate some of your prized possessions for the exhibit?
Wagoner: One of the biggest things probably in my whole career is becoming a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. … Anybody who’s been in the business any time at all, that’s one of their grand things they want to do. So when that happened, I started participating in things down here, more then, of course. I’m just hoping that a lot of the people will want to see some of my … junk. (laughs) That’s what they call it at the house. Anyway, it’s stuff — memorabilia — that I’ve gathered over my years in the music business
You have your first guitar, an $8 National, in the exhibit.
My mother ordered that guitar for me, and I paid for it by trapping rabbits. I trapped rabbits, sold [pelts] for a dime apiece — 15 cents apiece, once in a while, when the market was good. We lived out in the country, and I’d meet the mailman every day. Whatever rabbits I had trapped during that time [I'd] sell them to him.
How many rabbits did it take to buy the guitar?
It took quite a few. It didn’t cost very much money because she ordered it out of a catalog — Montgomery Ward.
You have some suits on display from Nudie and Manuel. I guess some people recognize you for your look as much as they do your music.
The whole idea for my rhinestones and all the glitter and stuff was from a man [Nudie Cohen] from California. He had a clothing store in North Hollywood, Calif., and he made suits … for [cowboy] movie stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He took that idea, but he added with it rhinestones and sequins and so forth — embroidery — and then putting sequins on that in rhinestone. He was just a brilliant man. You see some of those stones that jump out at you. He knew how to do that. He knew how to sew them that way where they would look real sharp.
You’d come on stage … why people hadn’t seen anything like it! They would just ooh and aah and wow. I thought a lot of it they were doing for me. (laughs) Not really.
A lot of people love the message, “hi,” you have woven in many of your costumes.
That was my idea putting the “hi” inside there. I thought that would be a nice thing because they [the jackets] are pretty warm on stage, and that would give me a reason to open it up and show it to everybody. Let a little air in there, too.
There’s another guitar in the collection that’s a little fancier than your first one.
Probably my biggest fan that I’ve ever met. He’s a Japanese man. He’s named Mac Yasuda, and he just loves my music. He knows every song I’ve ever recorded, and he can sing most of them in Japanese. He just wanted to have me a really nice guitar made. He made that one, and then I didn’t use it a lot of times when I didn’t have a blue suit on. He asked me one time, “I noticed that you didn’t play your guitar tonight.” And I said, “Yeah, unless I have my blue suit on, it doesn’t look quite right.” Then he had me a white one made that would go with everything.
There’s a picture of you with James Brown appearing on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
He’s a great, great entertainer. I got in a day early for a show that we was doing at the Terrace Ballroom. James Brown was there that night and also Little Richard and Fats Domino. I went down to see the show the night before we played there the next day.
James Brown was absolutely a knockout. They had the audience built up to a fever pitch when they was introducing him, and [when] he came out, it sounded like a tornado hit the building. I went backstage after the show was over and got a chance to meet James and get acquainted with him. I told him I’d like to have him on the Grand Ole Opry sometime. He said, “Man, you call me anytime. I’ll come be on the Opry.”
He was later your guest on the Opry. How did the audience react?
They loved him. You couldn’t help but like James Brown if you came to see a show because he’s such a wonderful showman. I had him to learn a few country songs to break the ice with the audience where he didn’t just start into some of the some of his heavy-duty soul songs. It went over real big.
There are several items in the exhibit from your years with Dolly Parton. Why did the two of you work together well as a duet?
It was great working with Dolly. Of course, Dolly started out basically on my television show. She just learned a lot when she was on my show the first seven and a-half years of her career, you might say. She’s a great lady, and she don’t forget anything because the music is so much a part of her life, even then, although she wasn’t in it big time then. … I felt like Dolly and I had one of the finest country duets of all time because we sang like brother and sister. That blood harmony, they call it. You can’t beat that, in my view.