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Porter Wagoner can't slow down

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2007

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Wagoner was born near West Plains, Mo. Aug. 12, 1927, the son of a farmer. At an early age, he was exposed to country music. His brother Glenn Lee played fiddle and guitar with Wagoner learning the fiddle. His sister Lorraine taught him acoustic guitar.

Wagoner acknowledges that his family played a role in his musical development - "part of my blood you know," he says.

Wagoner dropped out of school after the eighth grade due to family pressures as the Wagoners lost their farm.

Encouraged by Roy Acuff, who he met in West Plains, and inspired by Bill Monroe, Wagoner played bluegrass music throughout the county and sang gospel as well. During a trip to Nashville in 1949, Wagoner saw Hank Williams singing "Lovesick Blues" at the Grand Ole Opry.

"I just remember seeing him, and he was a knockout, and he sung the song over and over and over as the encore. 'Lovesick Blues' was hot then. It was just a hot song."

Wagoner entertained customers at a local market where he worked. The owner of the store thought enough of Wagoner's music to sponsor him on a 15-minute daily performance on the local radio station, KWPM. His star grew, and he attracted regional attention.

A Springfield, Mo. station, KWTO, soon came knocking. "He had heard about me from a bus driver," he says of Lew Black, the head of the station. "So, he drove there. One morning I went on radio at 6 o'clock, and I see this black limo out in front of the store, and I didn't know who it was. I thought it might be the hit man coming (because) I'd gotten too popular or something. He sat there and listened to me on the radio, and as soon as the show was over, he introduced himself."

"I said I first had to talk with the guy I worked for here. He just waited around until Sid Boughn came in, the guy who owned the store." Mr. Baughn told him that's why we got this show here - hopefully, he'd (Wagoner) get a big job one day where he'd get paid for being on the radio. He said, 'when do you want him to show up.' 'I'd like for him to show up Monday.' He said (I) would be there...that's how I got the job in Springfield."

By 1952, Wagoner signed with RCA Victor Records, but was not off to a flying start. His first single was Hank Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire" in 1952, but neither that nor his next seven singles made a dent.

RCA figured there was no future for Wagoner with them and dropped him in 1954. Wagoner did not give up though and recorded two songs with his own money, which became his first two hits, 'Company's Comin" in 1954 and "A Satisfied Mind." RCA changed its mind and quickly re-signed Wagoner.

"I'd already been gone, but Steve Sholes (of RCA) was the reason I stayed on the label. He said we'll find a hit one day for you. He said it's just a matter of finding the right song. It wasn't long after that that I found the song 'Satisfied Mind,' and that's the one that done the job for me."

A year later, Wagoner would release his first gospel recording, "What Would You Do (If Jesus Came to Your House)." Only one year later, Wagoner was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and relocated to Nashville. He soon formed his backup band, The Wagonmasters.

The hits kept coming for Wagoner in the '60s, including "Misery Loves Company," a number 1 hit, in 1962, "Green Green Grass of Home" in 1965, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" in 1967.

The 1960s also found Wagoner starting a syndicated television program, growing from 18 stations to more than 200 by the early 1970s, according to Wagoner.

"Bill Graham was the producer of the TV show. He was going to start a country music show that he could syndicate across the country. He was looking for people, he was looking for a star. He felt I could do that and sell product for that. I was the one he picked. He knew how he wanted the show done, and he asked who I'd like to have on the show with me, and if I wanted a singer and a comedian. I told him I wanted both of them, a comedian and a girl singer. I felt both were needed."

"I had a special guest each week, someone from the Grand Ole Opry or someone with a hot record that had a career that was breaking out. I'd have them on the show. It was a great thing for me."

Wagoner also had a signing partner in Norma Jean in the early 1960s. Seven years later, he introduced the young Parton.

Wagoner combined forces with Parton with whom he would have 18 songs that charted between 1967 and 1980, starting with the Tom Paxton song, "The Last Thing On My Mind," in 1967 to their only number 1, "Please Don't Stop Loving Me" in 1974 to their last song that charted, "If You Go, I'll Follow You," in 1980.

The two had a falling out at one point when Parton tried to start a solo career in the early 1970s, and Wagoner felt he deserved credit for her success. The two eventually battled it out in the courts. Parton's career took off, while Wagoner's success was increasingly limited. With their court actions behind them, Parton and Wagoner later put their differences behind them.

He stayed with the RCA label, which continued releasing Wagoner's solo material and duets with Parton, though they stopped recording together in 1975.

Though Wagoner's recording output has not been vast in recent years, he retains his trademark style of dress and allegiance to the Opry.

He just celebrated his golden anniversary at the Opry in May with Parton and Patty Loveless among those participating. "I spent all these years at the Grand Ole Opry because I feel like it's the probably the most important radio show anywhere in the world. It's been going on for some 80 some years, and I've been a part of it 50 years."

"People come there from all over the world see the performances of me and other folks are there. That's a wonderful thing. It's an audience that you never get tired of because you're entertaining different people all the time that come to see you perform you perform your songs for them. That's what the Opry is about."

And if you're seeing Wagoner at the Opry, you're also seeing him in one of his special outfits made by country clothes designing great Nudie Cohen.

"Nudie came to see me in Springfield, Mo. when I was on the Ozark Jubilee, and he told me about what he'd done, and he made clothes for a lot of the western entertainers, the guys in the movies like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He'd never made one for people to wear on stage that had rhinestones and sequins and brilliant looking stuff and had a lot of sparkle and twang to it. That's what he was going to make for me. I told him I probably couldn't afford it. He said the first two you buy won't cost you anything. Once you see, it's something you got to have, it'll be something that you buy a lot of from me during a your career."

Wagoner apparently became convinced because he owns about 60 Nudie suits.

The new album is Wagoner's most high profile disc in years.

"I'm proud to put my name on the product. That's what people have to judge it by. (Anti-) are the ones that wanted the project, and I wanted them to have it...the record labels in Nashville didn't show the right interest in it because I didn't want someone to put it out who wouldn't work on it (and think) 'let's put it out and see what happens. It's not that kind of album."

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