Funeral services for the late Porter Wagoner will be Thursday (Nov. 1) at 11 a.m.at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, with interment following at Woodlawn Cemetery. Visitation will be Wednesday (Oct. 31) from 2-8 p.m. at Woodlawn Funeral Home. Visitation and funeral are open to the public. Memorial contributions may be sent to Alive Hospice or the Opry Trust Fund.
Wagoner, a Grand Ole Opry institution and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Sunday (Oct. 28) at 8:25 p.m. at Alive Hospice in Nashville.
Known as the Thin Man From West Plains, he was 80 and had been hospitalized since Oct. 15. An Opry spokesperson announced on Oct. 21 that Wagoner had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was released to hospice care on Friday (Oct. 26).
An Opry star since 1957, the well-loved Wagoner had been the show’s goodwill ambassador for many years and was photographed by fans millions of times as he clowned onstage in the flashy rhinestone suits that became one of his trademarks.
After suffering a near-fatal stomach aneurysm in 2006, he later recorded a new album, Wagonmaster, released earlier this year. He promoted the project by traveling to Hollywood in February to open a concert for Neko Case. In July, he opened the White Stripes’ concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Earlier this year, he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the Opry. He last played the Opry on Sept. 29.
Wagoner was twice divorced. His second marriage of 40 years to Ruth Williams produced his three children, Richard, Debra and Denise, who survive him.
Born in the Ozark Mountains region of southwestern Missouri on Aug. 12, 1927, Porter Wayne Wagoner moved to nearby West Plains, Mo., with his farming family. Biographer Steve Eng described Wagoner’s first band, the Blue Ridge Boys, as “bluegrass,” much in the style of his idol at the time, Bill Monroe. By 1950, still in his early 20s and more into the singing style of Hank Williams, Wagoner was cutting meat for a local butcher when he wangled a remote radio broadcast from the shop over radio station KWPM in West Plains.
The next year, he was hired away by the larger KWTO in Springfield, Mo., where entrepreneur Si Siman would soon launch the famous Ozark Jubilee. It proved to be the right place at the right time. In 1952, RCA Victor Records, scouting local talent, signed the young hopeful on little more than speculation. His early records sold poorly, but he learned his craft on grinding tours of the Springfield listening radius as leader of the Porter Wagoner Trio, which included guitarist “Speedy” Haworth and a high-harmony singer on the steel guitar who would stay with Wagoner for decades, Don Warden.
Even while Wagoner’s own earliest records weren’t selling, he had the good fortune to co-write a No. 2 hit for Carl Smith titled “Trademark” (1953). As an artist, Wagoner first dented the charts with a mountain ditty called “Company’s Comin'” in late 1954, and the next year, he reached No. 1 with RCA’s version of the great Red Hayes-Jack Rhodes ballad, “A Satisfied Mind.” Having made the rounds of the Ozark Jubilee cast, the song was a hit at the same time for Jean Shepard on Capitol and Red Foley on Decca.
As rock ’n’ roll pushed hard country to the fringes over the next few years, Wagoner’s repertoire, if anything, moved into an even stronger country sound with his recordings of “Eat, Drink and Be Merry (Tomorrow You’ll Cry)” (1955), “What Would You Do (If Jesus Came to Your House)” (1956), Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” (1956) and a soulful weeper written by Lee Emerson, “I Thought I Heard You Call My Name” (1957).
Wagoner learned the lesson of valuable TV exposure during those years as an early cast member of ABC’s Ozark Jubilee (1955-56), but he left the show in 1956 and moved to Nashville, where he was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry cast the next year. At the Opry, he was stepping back into the radio era, albeit surrounded by bigger stars, and he was still playing all the tour dates he could get. But recalling the value of TV exposure, he jumped at the chance to host in 1960 one of the first ventures into syndicated country music television for the Chattanooga Medicine Company, makers of the popular laxatives and elixirs Cardui and Black Draught.
Hosting The Porter Wagoner Show was a tall, thin, close-cropped young man whose solemn seriousness contrasted markedly with his sometimes silly exuberance of later years, but his voice and demeanor made him the perfect salesman for the company’s products. He was believable, popular and eager to showcase a cast that included his talented Wagon Masters band, rube comic Speck Rhodes (brother to the writer of “A Satisfied Mind”) and Norma Jean, a female vocalist who also recorded for RCA. The program also presented a weekly parade of special guests who were among the biggest stars in country music. While later and shorter-lived syndicated shows by such better-known stars as Ernest Tubb and Flatt & Scruggs struggled to keep viewers, The Porter Wagoner Show eventually reached 3 million viewers via 100 local stations and stayed in production an incredible 21 years.
TV exposure again meant hit records for Wagoner, and his steady stream of 1960s hits reflect that serious, solemn, no-nonsense on-camera persona: “Misery Loves Company” (1962), “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand” (1962-1963), “Sorrow on the Rocks” (1964), “Green, Green Grass of Home” (1965) and “Skid Row Joe” (1965). His other hits included 1967’s “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” (a Bill Anderson song about a cuckolded husband who turns mass murderer) and 1969’s “The Carroll County Accident” (songwriter Bob Ferguson’s CMA-award winning composition centering around the theme of infidelity and violent death, this time in a car wreck).
When Norma Jean left the TV show in 1967, Wagoner auditioned dozens of “girl singers” to replace her and finally picked a 20-year-old blonde bombshell from the hills of East Tennessee named Dolly Parton. Although Norma Jean’s many fans gave her a hard time at first, Parton proved to be Wagoner’s finest moment as a talent scout. Beneath Parton’s obvious beauty lived a powerful singer-songwriter whose artistic stature grew with the passing years.
Parton also became a perfect duet partner for Wagoner. He got her on the Grand Ole Opry and RCA Records and, of course, featured her on his road shows. The years of their association (1967-1974) produced a stunning 14 Top 10 duet hits as Parton the solo artist matured and prospered under Wagoner’s supervision. They parted acrimoniously in 1974, as Parton took Don Warden from the Wagon Masters to manage her career when she moved toward country-pop superstardom. Though he tried, Wagoner found no replacement for Parton, and his TV show, relocated to the friendly informality of outdoor Opryland theme park settings, lost its edge, intensity and eventually much of its audience. The program ended its 21-year run in 1981.
Wagoner’s name stayed on the lips of country fans as the years passed but more for stunts like bringing soul star James Brown onto the Opry in March 1979, replacing his Wagon Masters with the all-female Right Combination band (inspired by the title of a 1971 duet hit with Parton) in the ’80s. Ever the talented TV host, Wagoner and Bill Anderson shared interview chores on TNN’s Opry Backstage in the ’90s.
Like Roy Acuff before him, Wagoner settled into a Grand Ole Opry routine in which the fans came to him — he no longer went to the fans. Saturday after Saturday, he posed for countless snapshots while flashing his rhinestone suits and famous smile, singing woefully truncated medleys of his great hits when he wasn’t wisecracking. Wagoner was a favorite not only with fans, but with his fellow artists, who joined him on countless golf and fishing trips, hobbies at which he excelled.
It was ironic that his discovery, Dolly Parton, was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, three years before Wagoner received the honor.