Porter Wagoner: 1927-2007
Porter Wagoner, the famed country singer who scored a grip of Top 40 country hits between 1954-83, passed away yesterday after a battle with lung cancer. He was also The Man Who Made Dolly Parton A Star, giving her valuable exposure in his road show and on record. But there was more to the man than just being Parton's duet partner early in her career.
There were the rhinestone suits, which you could see from two blocks away on a cloudy day, topped off by one of the most distinctive hairstyles in music history (a platinum pompadour which gave eventually way to a disco perm), plus the LP covers that elevated country album art to a new high, and so much more.
* The fact that he brought James Brown on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, doing a half-country, half-soul set that climaxed with his famed cape routine, where he threatened to leave the stage for good but kept coming back. The switchboard lit up with complaints - right on to Wagoner for thinking out of the box, and James Brown (who was a huge country fan) for being James Brown. (And pray to the Lord that someone will release the radio recordings!)
* That one album he did in 1972 (What Ain't To Be Just Might Happen) where maybe half the songs were about mental illness (including the single "Rubber Room," which never became a hit, but still has an underground rep with alt-country types who are into camp). He would have made the whole album about going crazy, but as he then explained to guitarist Chet Atkins (who was then the vice-president of the country division of RCA, Wagoner's longtime label), "I am done writing insanity songs! I wrote my last one just the other night! I can't handle it too damn much more!"
* His endless thirst for gimmicks, especially after his popularity started to slide in the late '70s, like performing disco versions of his old hits in his live set and later hiring an all-female backing band. And even when he was still on top, he was still waking up early in the morning trying to stay ahead of the pack, with songs, monologues and entire concept albums about mass murderers and extreme alcoholism.
* His near-meltdown on stage in 2001 at the Grand Ole Opry when he found out Sam Phillips (head of Sun Records, the label that yielded Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others) made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame before he did. (Wagoner made it to the Hall the following year - the CMHoF is notorious for taking its sweet time to acknowledge the greats in the field, but at least Wagoner and Phillips lived long enough to see it happen.)
* His TV variety show, which ran for forever-and-one years on syndicated television (and inspired just about every country singer in the '60s with more than three hit singles to get a show themselves). before finally leaving the air in 1981, after something like 21 years on air.
And yet, when all the gimmicks subsided, you still had a quality singer/writer/performer on your hands. Yes, Wagoner himself admitted that he had to go that extra mile so he wouldn't be considered a nostalgia act like, say, Roy Acuff. But he never had that stink of desperation that you usually see in fading superstars; the eccentric touches, while surprising, always seemed like part of the master plan. As far as the unusual subject matter of his songs, Johnny Cash covered a lot of the same ground, but you'd expect anything from a semi-outsider like Cash, who wore black, hung out with Bob Dylan, recorded two of his biggest-selling albums in jailhouses, and frowned all the time. Wagoner, on the other hand, wore multicolored outfits with glittering wagon wheels (Wagoner, wagon wheels - get it?), always had a friendly (although dazed) "howdy, neighbor" grin on his mug, and in the '60s and '70s was considered part of the mainstream.
It is jarring to hear the lanky grinning dude who advertises Breeze detergent on TV singing offhandedly about murder sprees and mental instability.
It almost makes sense that Wagoner recorded a Cash song, "Committed To Parkview" - again, about a mental instititution - on Wagonmaster, which was just released earlier this year. I'd like to think Cash (and James Brown!) are somewhere welcoming Wagoner to the bye and bye right now. In the meantime, sink your teeth into this touching love ballad ("Julie") from his Cold, Hard Facts Of Life album from 1967.
Image via porterwagoner.com