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Porter Wagoner: the best he's ever been?

By Joel Bernstein, July 2000

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The subject matter on his new album doesn't approach many of Wagoner's classic songs, which often involved death or violence. Even though Wagoner is aware that "I have no appeal to the youth," he feels the effect of the modern radio environment.

"Most commercial songs are love songs." says Wagoner. "Right now, positive love songs are the most commercial. You couldn't give away a song like 'Cold Hard Facts Of Life' in today's market. It would be very naive to try. There's enough of that on the news. Timing is everything. At that time, you couldn't have given away 'Friends In Low Places.' It was a different era then. Violence is so prevalent in society today that you don't do things like that any more if you want to get played on the radio. Back then, you had to have an imagination to write a song like that. Now you can see it on the news.

"A lot of songs today have nothing to them. The same melodies, no lyrical depth. Country music needs some creativity to it. It needs songs that when you listen to them, you almost have to admire the people who wrote it. My music is designed for my fans to hear. It doesn't matter if my hits were a hundred years ago. You're old when you feel old. I still feel like I did when I was with Dolly. I still do the same things and eat the same food. I've made a great living at it."

"I'm on the Opry every Friday and Saturday. I'm not trying to build a career, I'm trying to sustain one."

You won't find hear any criticism of current Opry management from Wagoner.

"The Opry is better now than it's ever been. It looks better. Everyone in the building has a view like a front row seat. They've spent a million dollars upgrading the stage. We (the performers) deserve that, and the fans deserve it. It's celebrating its 75th year. I'd say they're doing something right."

Some people say that with the deaths of Roy Acuff and other Opry veterans, Wagoner is the leader among the artists.

Wagoner says that no one is really the leader, but "I'm one of the people who's been here a long time. I think a lot of people count on me for advice."

Members of the Opry "have to be successful and have to want to be a member. A country music artist I would think would want to be a member eventually. People want to be a part of it. Some of the superstars, like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, say the biggest thrill in their lives was becoming a member."

Of newcomer Brad Paisley, who has already guested on the Opry many times and made no bones about his desire to be a member, Wagoner says "He's a tremendously talented artist. That's the kind of guy we're looking for. I think it's awfully hard to be successful in country music without respecting the roots of it. Most of these kids know where the roots come from."

"If you want to be a pop star, you should be in New York or Los Angeles. For country music, Nashville is it."

Wagoner does echo a familiar lament among his generation.

"Most of the country stations don't play the older traditional country artists. Rock 'n' roll stations still play their older artists. It's really a disgrace that so few of the country music disc jockeys will play the traditional music. I don't care if they play my record because I've done without them for so long, but they should play the traditional music for the fans."

Wagoner was far from an overnight sensation, and he admits that it took a while to find what worked for him. "On my first record, I think I did try to sound like Hank (Williams). I was just a dumb kid from Missouri. You can't imitate others. You only help them. You just have to learn how to sing, to perform in your own style and to be an entertainer."

One way Wagoner set himself apart from the pack was with those gaudy Rhinestone outfits that became known as Nudie suits after their creator, Russian-born California tailor Nudie Cohn.

"He had an idea. He thought they'd look great. I was 6'2" with a slim build. He said I looked like a mannequin, like a hanger to hang it on." (Wagoner says he still wears the same size clothes today as he did back then)

Cohn was so convinced that the then struggling Wagoner was the perfect vehicle for his designs that he gave him a custom made outfit free, thinking correctly that it would drum up a lot of business.

Nudie suits became a staple of country music for years, culminating more-or-less in the particularly exotic outfit created for Gram Parsons in his Flying Burrito Brothers era.

After Nudie's death in 1984, his one-time apprentice, Manuel Cuevas, became the leading supplier of country stars' stage outfits and continued to supply Wagoner with his suits.

Now that Wagoner is back recording, many fans are probably hoping that he will reunite with Dolly Parton for duets. They were obviously not the first such combo, but they may have been the most successful. It was particularly beneficial for Parton, who was just starting out. She had 6 Top 10 hits with Wagoner before scoring her first as a solo artist. Wagoner's previous longtime "girl singer" Norma Jean had left for family reasons. (Despite her popularity on Wagoner's show and as a solo artist, Norma Jean and Wagoner had never recorded duets together)

Wagoner eventually selected Parton as his new partner, ushering in an era of great success for both of them. There has been considerable debate as to whether Porter made Dolly a star, or whether Dolly kept Porter's career afloat for years. It is, of course, a pointless debate. Both obviously contributed a great deal to each other.

The pair eventually had a well-publicized falling out, including a lawsuit involving publishing. ("Just business," says Wagoner, although the media portrayed them for a while as bitter enemies.)

They did, however, reunite for an album in 1980 and according to Wagoner could do so again.

"Dolly and I, we're doing fine. We've talked about doing a duet. If we can come up with enough great material - maybe we'll have to write it ourselves - I'd love to see us do another album. We're as good a country duet as you can find anywhere in the yard. But I don't want to do something that doesn't live up to our (previous) quality."

Wagoner's return to recording may have reenergized his career.

"I enjoyed it. I did a lot of recording at home. I have the digital equipment. It gives everyone an even keel. In the early days, Nashville didn't get the very best equipment."

Now Wagoner doesn't have to worry about recording equipment or making hit records. All he needs are the great songs to let him make records that his fans will enjoy because the fans who have supported him for years seem to be the only people that really matter to Porter Wagoner.

Photo by Morello/Ghergia

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