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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 541


This is the grave of Porter Wagoner.

Born in 1927 in West Plains, Missouri, Wagoner grew up in a farming family. But from a child, he was taken with increasingly popular genre of country music. In his late teens, he formed a band called the Blue Ridge Boys, which played on local radio stations. By 1951, he was hired to be a performer on a radio station in Springfield, Missouri, which may not sound like the big time, but in the world of mid-century country music could be a big step up. Moreover, the guy who ran that station was Si Siman, about to become one of the biggest producers in country music and who not only discovered Wagoner, but also Chet Atkins.

Siman got Wagoner signed to RCA and eventually produced his first hit, “A Satisfied Mind.” He also told Wagoner that his given name of Chester was not going to work and they came up with Porter instead. Probably a good idea. But it took awhile for Wagoner to get going. Mostly his band played local schoolhouses, which was not much of a living. Other than meeting Siman, his other big break was that Carl Smith had a hit with Porter’s song “Trademark” in 1953. This gave Wagoner more attention and he started getting relatively minor hits of his own, as well as “A Satisfied Mind,” which hit #1 in 1955. He started playing the televised Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, which was one of many country shows around the South at this time. This led him to the big country show–The Grand Ole Opry–in 1957. He would become one of the mainstays of the Opry over the years.

Still, after “A Satisfied Mind,” it took years for Porter to get another chart-topper. Not until 1962, with “Misery Loves Company,” would he get a #1 hit. But after that, the hits started coming more often, usually more top 5 than #1, but still pretty good. Yet even before that second chart-topper, Porter had his own television show, The Porter Wagoner Show, which started in 1960 and ran all the way until 1981. This was a 30-minute show and over the years, there were a remarkable 686 episodes. It was on this show that Porter discovered his greatest contribution to country music–Dolly Parton. She first played on his show in 1967 and together they had several hits. Dolly actually replaced Norma Jean as the main female voice on the show when the latter got married and she had been so popular with the audience that it took quite awhile for Dolly to get acceptance, to the point that people in the audience were calling out for Jean during Dolly’s performances. I think it’s safe to say that Porter upgraded on this one. They had their first top-10 hit with a cover of “The Last Thing on My Mind” in 1968 and until 1974, they had a long string of big hits.

That long string of hits only ended when Dolly went solo in 1974, after she had a gigantic hit with “Jolene.” She also appreciated Porter very much, but it was definitely time to go out on her own. She even wrote “I Will Always Love You” in tribute to him. Porter did not take it well. It was a huge blow to him, including to his career and she soon far outshone him. The Drunk History episode on Porter and Dolly is fantastic and gets at what a drunk fool Porter became in the aftermath, desperate to recreate that success with any good looking woman with a quarter-decent voice that he would throw money at. Only a clip is available online, but it is very much well worth your time.

But you know, Porter was a pretty interesting guy and more than happy to try out new things. That reached its peak when he invited James Brown to play at the Opry. Now for Porter and JB and many other musicians, the relationship between country and soul was always obvious. These were musics of the people, songs of the often rural South about everyday people getting through everyday life. There were tons of country covers of R&B and just as many R&B and soul covers of country songs. (check out Candi Stanton’s cover of “Stand By Your Man” as a peak of this genre, more so in my view than the somewhat sappy Ray Charles country cover albums). But to country fans, holy shit. James Brown! He’s doesn’t play OUR music. And like with Lil Nas X today, “our music” definitely meant that he wasn’t white. It, uh, did not go well. Many of the musicians were angry as well. There are many lowlights in the history of Nashville. This is right at the bottom. But Porter, who was friends with Brown, always defended this and he was right about it.

By the early 80s, Porter’s star was on the decline. The show ended in 81 and his hitmaking days were through. He and Dolly reconciled (and he was the one who really caused their personal split because he was so jealous of her) by the late 80s and they played together sometimes. In 2002, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But he was a mostly forgotten figure outside of the Opry world, which is kind of inward-looking, even for the country music establishment (who still knows about Bill Anderson except for people who still go to the Opry? But even though Anderson hasn’t had a top-10 hit since 1978, he still plays almost every weekend on the show). Then, in 2007, Marty Stuart convinced Porter to release a final album, which Stuart produced. Wagonmaster is a pretty strong old man country album, maybe not quite at the peak of that genre (which I would argue is Cash’s American Recordings, Loretta’s Van Lear Rose, and then, much less well known, is Hank Thompson’s awesome 2000 album, Seven Decades), but quite worthy. And Jack White, who always loved country music and had produced Van Lear Rose, had Porter open for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden, which was probably pretty awesome, though I don’t know how his fans would have taken it.

Porter kept playing at the Opry until the end, which was from that all too common demise of people who grew up in the twentieth century, lung cancer. At his bedside when he died was not only his family, but also Dolly Parton.

Let’s check out some Porter Wagoner.

Porter Wagoner is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. Many thanks for keeping this series alive! If you would like this series to profile other members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Phil Everly, inducted with Don in 2001, is in Central City, Kentucky, while both Ira and Charlie Louvin are also in Nashville, but at a cemetery I was unable to visit while I was there. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

…..In an unusually relevant grave update, it turns out that the Porter Wagoner estate sale is this weekend in Nashville. If anyone wants to buy me some rhinestone studded guitars, I encourage you to do so!

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