(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Porter Wagoner’s final tribute was a simple but eloquent ceremony that bore testimony to his humble beginnings and love for music. The funeral service, at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House on Thursday (Nov. 1), was mostly about the music. And in that sense, it was remarkably similar to his life and career.
For a public persona, very little was really ever known about him, apart from his music. And not that much more was revealed at his tribute in the Opry House — the scene of so many of Wagoner’s triumphant moments over the last 50 years and still the home of his backstage Opry dressing room, No. 14. The presiding minister, Dr. Jerry Sutton of Two Rivers Baptist Church, said that it’s a plain but true fact that Wagoner had become — worldwide — the face and the voice of the Opry.
The Opry House stage was plainly adorned with nearly two dozen floral displays and two of Wagoner’s bright spangled and rhinestoned jackets. The wooden casket at stage front was draped with white flowers.
The conundrum that is country music was plain to see on two messages on the back window of a pickup truck parked near the Opry House. One message read, “Heaven is a lil more sparkly — Porter rest well.” The other? It read, “Impeach Bush.”
Wagoner was not an easy person to know or to like, but he proved to be one incredibly valuable friend once you did get to know him as a friend and an artist. As Dr. Sutton said, Wagoner “was not a perfect man, but he was a great man.”
He first charted a country record in 1954 with “Company’s Comin'” on RCA, and he went on to chart 78 more hits on RCA until he and the label parted ways in 1980. As far as Nashville proper was concerned, his career pretty much came to an end. He, of course, plowed on as a Grand Ole Opry stalwart to become finally its public face. Nothing else much happened for him in a major career way. For years and years. His career seemed to go away. Chart-wise, he disappeared, except for a couple of minor Warner Bros. releases in the early 1980s.
Marty Stuart, God bless him, resurrected Porter’s legacy and music and rightful dignity this year by prodding Wagoner into recording the triumphant Wagonmaster album. Porter left this life, as far as I can tell, with a satisfied mind. Can’t ask for much more than that. How wonderful that he finally got to play Madison Square Garden earlier this summer, opening for the White Stripes.
As Dr. Sutton said, Wagoner came close to death a year ago when he had an aneurysm. At that time, the minister said, Wagoner got close to God and begged for a little more time but knew that he was living on borrowed time and that the end was drawing near. Dolly Parton said, before leading some three dozen Opry members in an onstage rendition of “I Saw the Light,” Wagoner had recently sent her tapes of him singing a number of gospel songs. “I said,” Parton remembered, “’What is it, Porter? Are you cramming now to make up for all those years?'”
No matter. He left many rich musical memories. Vince Gill, who sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain” with Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs during the service, recalled that Wagoner was the first person he ever saw sing country music. “That was life-changing for me,” said Gill, who grew up watching the Porter Wagoner Show on TV. “Every Saturday at 4:30,” he remembered, “my old man said, ’Get down here, boy. It’s time to watch Porter!'”
Other gospel tributes came from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Ricky Skaggs and the Whites, Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys, the Carol Lee Singers and three members of Wagoner’s Wagonmasters band — Danny Davis, Rick “L.D.” Money, and Fred Newell. All shared their musical memories of Wagoner. Allen recalled his first meeting with Wagoner in 1966.
“He handed me a tape and said to me,” said Allen, “’You’ve heard all the stories about Porter Wagoner. But listen to this tape. This is how I feel in my heart.'”
Allen said the tape contained Wagoner singing the gospel classic, “When I Sing for Him.” And Allen proceeded to sing that song once more for Wagoner, at his funeral, in an emotional and powerful performance. The songs, like Wagoner’s music during his career, were plain, simple, sentimental and powerful.
My favorite memory of Porter will always be of him at the old Fan Fair at the Nashville fairgrounds, where he loved meeting with his fans. I will forever have an image of him sitting at a table in his booth, and — just as a fan starts to take a picture of him — he holds up a little sign reading, “I’m Naked From the Waist Down.” What a joker. Funny — and yet … .