Porter Wayne Wagoner was a country music legend, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and a country music icon.
He was recognized by generations of country music fans for his Nudie suits, his flamboyant pile of blond hair, and his simple singing style. He is perhaps best known for his performing alongside a little country gal singer from Tennessee named Dolly Parton.
Along the way to a career which spanned over 50 years Wagoner broke ground in many ways. He was born near West Plains, Mo. on August 12, 1927. The first ground he broke was with mules, plowing on the farm. He trapped rabbits and sold the pelts to scrape together the cash for his first guitar, an $8 Mongomery Ward National model.
The family had to sell the farm due to his father's growing arthritis. Moving to West Plains, young Wagoner found work for the local butcher. Hearing the young man sing and play, his employer put him to work singing advertisements on radio.
Climbing the ladder of success
In 1951 Wagoner moved on to performing for a Springfield, Mo. radio station, and signed his first recording contract the next year. His initial efforts were in mimicking hero Hank Williams, a move which was doomed to failure. He soon lost his contract with RCA, but was re-signed following a self-financed record's success. Wagoner had learned the important lesson to simply be himself.
Wagoner had a sense of style he wanted to portray and toward that end spent $350 for his first Nudie suit, the creation of famous tailor Nudie Cohn.
Wagoner soon had a successful recording career and a regional TV program. He stepped up to the Grand Ole Opry in 1957. Wagoner began his national TV show in 1961, a program which ran until 1981.
Wagoner parted company with his accompanist Norma Jean in 1967, and Dolly Parton was his choice as a replacement. The 2 had a very successful run as performers and songwriters, having a number of hit duets. The pair parted over creative issues in the mid 70s, with Parton going on to become one of the biggest stars in country music history. Wagoner had helped her in her formative years, teaching her the craft. The circle was completed when in 2002 it was Dolly Parton who inducted Porter Wagoner into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Porter Wagoner stayed active up until the very end. Under the urging of fan and fellow country performer Marty Stuart, Wagoner recorded his final album. Wagonmaster was released in 2007 to critical acclaim. Wagoner also celebrated his 50th year with the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, along with his 80th birthday. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died October 28, 2007 while under care at a Nashville, Tennessee hospice.
His funeral was at the Grand Ole Opry, a ceremony attended by a legion of his followers and performers he had affected in his life. Among attendees were Merle Haggard, George Jones, Jack White (singer with The White Stripes, a band Wagoner had played with the previous summer), and many others.
Wagoner first wed at the tender age of 16 to Velma Johnson, from whom he divorced before his 17th birthday. He remarried in 1946 to Ruth Olive Williams, a marriage with substantially longer staying power. The couple separated in 1966 and finally divorced in 1986. The couple had 2 daughters and a son.
81 songs on the country music charts
29 Top 10 hits on the country music charts
50 years with the Grand Ole Opry
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee (2002)
The Porter Wagoner Show long running country music/variety show
3 Grammy Awards (gospel recordings made with the Blackwood Brothers Quartet)
brought The Godfather of Soul, James Brown into the Grand Ole Opry for a performance (an act for which he caught hell from country music purists.)