Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Porter Wagoner

The Hill notes the passing of seminal country music artist Porter Wagoner, who died of lung cancer Sunday at age 80.

Wagoner, a Grand Ole Opry mainstay for decades with his blond pompadour and rhinestone-studded Nudie suits, was one of the artists who expanded country music from its rural roots into the pop music mainstream. Beginning with "Company's Comin'" in 1954, Wagoner would go on to rack up 81 Top 40 country chart hits. Wagoner's greatest influence, though, was through his TV program which ran from 1960 to 1981. At its peak, The Porter Wagoner Show was in over 100 markets from coast to coast, and brought the top country artists of the day into millions of households whose exposure to the genre was otherwise limited. Wagoner had a flair for exposing up-and-coming talent; his most notable find was a buxom blond singer and songwriter from the East Tennessee mountain country named Dolly Parton. The young Parton was Wagoner's duet partner and co-host for several seasons before launching her own successful career. Had he done nothing else, Wagoner would have been notable for discovering Parton alone.

Wagoner's best songs may have sounded like standard country fare at first listen, but many of his lyrics exposed the dark side of life. In "The Carroll County Accident", a married man and his young lover are killed in a car crash, and the man's son covers up the relationship between the two victims. The offbeat "The Rubber Room" is a reverb-drenched tale of psychosis. Perhaps best of all was "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life", in which Wagoner returns home early from a business trip to find a strange man entering his house. He circles the block in anger over and over while polishing off the bottle he bought for him and his wife to celebrate the occasion. Fueled by jealous rage and alcohol, he finally comes home and stabs his wife and her lover to death.

"A Satisfied Mind" was one of Wagoner's earliest hits. Its message of happiness being more important than wealth and fame is one we could all take note of today.

My dad was a big Porter Wagoner fan. He never missed Wagoner's TV show whenever he was home. One year for Dad's birthday, we got backstage passes to the Grand Ole Opry. Wagoner was one of the performers that night, and Dad waited outside his dressing room after the show. Eventually Wagoner came out, chatted with Dad for a bit, and autographed a photo for him. Despite the late hour, Wagoner was friendly and gracious to the fans gathered outside his door. I have seldom seen my dad as happy as he was in that brief moment that he got to meet Porter Wagoner.