Porter Wagoner Biography

12 August 1927, West Plains, Howell County, Missouri, USA, d. 28 October 2007, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Wagoner grew up listening to country music on the radio, particularly the weekly Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. He learned to play the guitar at the age of 10 and, owing to his father’s illness, his education was curtailed in order that he could help with the farm work. He made his first singing performances at the age of 17, in the grocery store where he also worked. The store owner was so impressed that he sponsored an early-morning show on the local radio in West Plains. In 1951, his singing attracted the attention of the programme director of KWTO Springfield, who offered him work on that station. Soon afterwards, Red Foley, who was then organizing his new television series the Ozark Jubilee, heard him and promptly added him to the cast. Although he was relatively unknown, the television and radio exposure gained him a recording contract with RCA Records and he made his debut in the US country charts in 1954 with ‘Company’s Comin’’.

The following year, ‘A Satisfied Mind’ gave Wagoner his first major country chart hit, spending four of the 33 weeks that it was charted at number 1. This marked the start of a recording career that, between 1955 and 1983, scarcely saw a year when his name did not appear at least once in the country charts. He began to write songs and also adopted the Nudie Cohen suits and coloured boots that were to remain his trademark. Wagoner’s glittering and twinkling outfits, and blonde hair in a D.A. style, once led someone to remark that it was the first time they were aware that a Christmas tree could sing (he and Hank Snow were two of the few artists to retain this type of dress, when most others were adopting more conservative styles - although it should be stressed that Snow had more dress sense). When RCA suggested that he record some rock ‘n’ roll tracks to keep abreast of the current trend, he refused, stating, ‘It just didn’t suit my personality. I couldn’t sing the songs’. Following further Top 10 country hits with ‘Eat Drink And Be Merry (Tomorrow You’ll Cry)’ and the semi-narration ‘What Would You Do (If Jesus Came To Your House)?’, in 1957 he became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. He also turned down the opportunity to record ‘Bye Bye Love’, which became a country and pop hit for both the Everly Brothers and Webb Pierce that year.

In 1960, Wagoner was given a television series sponsored by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. Whatever their reason for choosing the lanky Wagoner (he had become known as the Thin Man From West Plains) to host the show is not clear, but it was certainly a wise choice. Initially carried by 18 stations, it became so popular that by the end of the 60s, it was networked to 86 and, soon afterwards, to over 100 stations. The show, which featured Wagoner and his band the Wagonmasters, also acted as a shop window for new and established stars. His musicians included Buck Trent (who first used his electric banjo on the show), fiddler Mack Magaha and bass-playing comedian Speck Rhodes, who was one of the last of the rustic country comedians. Norma Jean was the show’s female singer for several years until she retired to get married in 1967 and was replaced by a young newcomer called Dolly Parton.

Between 1957 and 1964, Wagoner had further Top 10 country hits with ‘Your Old Love Letters’, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ and ‘Sorrow On The Rocks’, plus another number 1 with 1962’s ‘Misery Loves Company’. In 1965, he had major hits with the original version of ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’ (the following year Tom Jones’ recording became a UK pop number 1) and ‘Skid Row Joe’. The late 60s also saw Wagoner have number 2 US country hits with ‘The Cold Hard Facts Of Life’ and ‘The Carroll County Accident’. The latter even attained US pop chart status, and both songs have now become country standards. In 1967, Wagoner began his association with Parton, which during the next seven years produced a great many Top 10 country hits, such as ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’, ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’, ‘Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man’, ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’ and ‘Please Don’t Stop Loving Me’ (their only number 1). Together they won many awards, including the CMA Vocal Group of the Year in 1968 and Vocal Duo of the Year in both 1970 and 1971. However, the partnership ended acrimoniously in 1974, when Dolly Parton left to pursue her solo career. Most authorities believe that, having already become a star in her own right, she should have moved on earlier. Wagoner was naturally upset to lose so obvious an asset. Lawsuits followed and it was several years before they renewed their friendship.

After the split with Parton, Wagoner’s career began to slow down, and before the late 70s, he was classed as ‘the last of the hillbillies’ by the modern producers. During the 70s, when many of RCA’s main artists were recording material of a crossover nature, Wagoner continued rigidly with his strict country music. He still managed some chart solo hits, albeit of a more minor nature, such as the wistful ‘Charley’s Picture’ (also a minor US pop hit), ‘Carolina Moonshiner’ (penned by Dolly Parton) and ‘Ole Slew-Foot’. In 1981, RCA dropped his records from their catalogue and he left the label. He joined Warner Brothers Records and had minor hits with ‘Turn The Pencil Over’, a beautiful country ballad that he sang on the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood movieHonkytonk Man, and ‘This Cowboy’s Hat’. When the latter charted in 1983, it took his number of country chart hits to 81. He also re-recorded some of his earlier hits on Viva, including ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, and demonstrated that he was still very much a solid country artist.

Over the years Wagoner became a wealthy man and devoted more time to various business interests, as well as working in record production. He remained active as a performer, at one time appearing regularly with his All-Girls Band and still wearing his rhinestones. During the prime of his career he kept up a punishing schedule of touring, playing over 200 concerts a year, while still maintaining his network television show and Grand Ole Opry appearances. The quality of Wagoner’s duets with Dolly Parton are possibly the finest by any duo in country music and his own solo vocal abilities ranged from toe-tapping material to soulful country ballads. He was also probably the next best exponent to Hank Williams in performing heartfelt monologues, such as ‘Men With Broken Hearts’, in a convincing and genuine manner. Wagoner was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2002.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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