Porter Wagoner

Musical mentor to Dolly Parton
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The Independent Online

Porter Wayne Wagoner, singer, songwriter and producer: born Lanton, Missouri 12 August 1927; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Nashville 28 October 2007.

For many people the name Porter Wagoner is inextricably linked to that of his one-time protégée, Dolly Parton; the girl from the mountains of East Tennessee who stepped out from his shadow to become the most successful country star on the planet. As her mentor, Wagoner shaped her early career and they enjoyed a number of hit duets, but as her fame grew, so, too, did the tension between them and when she sought independence, their professional relationship shattered, causing Parton to express her feelings in a song that continues to retain enormous international popularity: "I Will Always Love You".

There was, however, far more to Wagoner than his association with Parton. With his heavily rhinestoned stage outfits and good-natured charm, he epitomised country showmanship and became a figurehead for Nashville's famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, an institution with which he main-tained a 50-year relationship. As an outstanding interpreter of songs, he accumulated more than 80 country hits, including classics such as "A Satisfied Mind" (1955), "Green, Green Grass of Home" (1965) and "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" (1967). Additionally, through his long-running television show, he played a leading role in bringing the music into suburban homes across America.

He was born on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks, in 1927, but his family eventually moved to the town of West Plains when it became obvious that his arthritic father could no longer cope with the heavy farm work. In 1949 Wagoner visited Nashville and saw Hank Williams perform on the stage of the Opry. Back in Missouri, a daily slot on local radio led, in 1951, to work 100 miles away at a much bigger station in Springfield and this, in turn, led to a recording contract with RCA.

His earliest efforts in the studio were very much in the Hank Williams mould and fared poorly. He was dropped by RCA and it wasn't until the self-financed "Company's Comin' " (1954) broke into the Top Ten that he was re-signed and his career took off. The next year saw his first chart-topper, "A Satisfied Mind" (1955); a song that would later be covered by, among others, Bob Dylan. He followed it with "Eat, Drink and Be Merry" and "What Would You Do? (If Jesus Came To Your House)" (both 1956) and in 1957 he was invited to join the cast of the Opry.

In 1960 he began to host The Porter Wagoner Show, a weekly cable-television show that would eventually run for 21 years and find its way into millions of American households. In addition to spotlighting members of his band, such as the comedian Speck Rhodes and the banjo player Buck Trent, it also showcased the work of a number of up-and-coming female vocalists including Norma Jean and, from 1967, Dolly Parton. She and Wagoner rapidly became one of the most successful duet teams in the genre, enjoying a string of hits such as "The Last Thing on My Mind" (1968), "Just Someone I Used to Know" (1969) and "Burning the Midnight Oil" (1972), and winning a clutch of awards. He nurtured her songwriting talent and produced her solo records, but her desire for greater creative control led to an acrimonious split and, eventually, a major lawsuit. In time, they reconciled and, appropriately, it was Parton who, in 2002, formally inducted him into the Country Music Hall of Fame

The solo hits, meanwhile, had continued and included an excellent interpretation of Johnny Bond's "Your Old Love Letters" (1961), Bill Anderson's "I've Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand" (1963) and, in 1965, the first hit version of "Green, Green Grass of Home". His album Confessions of a Broken Man (1966) featured one of his very finest recitations, "Skid Row Joe", and its striking album cover received a Grammy. He also, in 1966, 1967 and 1967, won Grammy Awards for a series of gospel albums recorded with the Blackwood Brothers. Other notable recordings from the period included "The Carroll County Accident" (1968) and, from the album What Ain't to Be, Just Might Happen (1972), the bizarre "Rubber Room", a song that today enjoys considerable cult status.

Although the hits eventually dried up, he retained a high profile in Music City, with later career landmarks including producing the R&B singer Joe Simon, sponsoring a controversial Opry performance by James Brown in 1979, touring with an all-girl band, the Right Combination, and being named "Goodwill Ambassador" for the Opryland theme park. He also continued to record periodically, with his final album, Wagonmaster (2007), produced by Marty Stuart, receiving universal acclaim.

I last saw Wagoner perform at the Opry this past summer. He had been in very poor health and, since he had come face to face with his own mortality, much of his previous ebullience had evaporated. He nevertheless remained a showman through and through.

Paul Wadey