Originally published in the December 3, 2007 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
The legendary Grand Ole Opry star dies of lung cancer after more than 50 years in country music.
Porter Wagoner, one of the mainstays of the Grand Ole Opry and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, will be greatly missed. He died Oct. 28 in Nashville after a battle with lung cancer at age 80. Porter leaves behind a remarkable legacy of more than 50 years as a country music entertainer and innovator.
Porter died peacefully after being released to hospice care, and took comfort in the visits of close friends like Dolly Parton and Dierks Bentley. Dolly offered a touching memory of her final visit with Porter, the man who helped launch her superstar career.
“I went over on Sunday afternoon [Oct. 28, the day Porter died], and spent the last few hours with Porter and his family, so I was able to say goodbye,” Dolly said. “I sang for him and prayed with him. It felt good that I had the opportunity to say goodbye properly.”
Often known more for his flashy rhinestone suits and engaging stage personality, Porter was at times overlooked as an accomplished musician and artist. He made his chart debut in 1954 with “Company’s Comin’” and scored his first No. 1 with the 1955 follow-up, “A Satisfied Mind,” which also became the title of his autobiography some years later. Many of Porter’s songs, like “The Carroll County Accident” and “Skid Row Joe,” told tales of down-and-outers in despair that were easily relatable to the common man. It was an audience that Porter knew first-hand.
Born Aug. 12, 1927, in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri, Porter grew up a farm boy who lived through poverty and hard times. He dreamed of becoming a country music entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry and got his wish in 1957, when he officially joined the Grand Ole Opry cast. This past May, Porter celebrated 50 years as an Opry member.
But Porter made his most significant contributions through the medium of television––it could rightly be noted that Porter was one of country’s first “multi-media” stars. His syndicated TV series, The Porter Wagoner Show, which ran from 1960–1981, introduced audiences to several stars that might never have received television exposure. At the recent Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, new Hall of Fame inductee Mel Tillis acknowledged that his appearance on Porter’s show helped spark his career.
Porter’s most famous discovery was a young blonde from East Tennessee named Dolly Parton, who was hired to replace the popular Norma Jean as the “girl singer” on Porter’s TV show and live concerts. Audiences did not take to Dolly at first, but Porter devised a solution.
“I came up with the idea of singing duets,” Porter once recalled. “I thought that if people could hear us together, they might change their minds [about Dolly].” And he was right on the money. Porter and Dolly released their first duet, “The Last Thing on My Mind,” in 1967, and the two harvested a string of hits over the years, including the 1974 No. 1 “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me” and 1980’s “Making Plans.”
Porter and Dolly won the 1968 CMA award for Vocal Group of the Year, and received the first two CMA Vocal Duo of the Year awards in 1970 and 1971.
“I learned all about being an entertainer from Porter,” Dolly once noted. She wrote her smash hit standard, “I Will Always Love You,” about Porter and their partnership.
Although a staunch traditionalist, Porter nonetheless enjoyed shaking up the musical establishment at various times. He invited R&B star James Brown to perform on the Opry in March of 1979, to decidedly mixed reaction, and once recorded a song called “The Rubber Room,” which featured waves of reverb and similar elements of ‘70s psychedelic music. He also helped pioneer the “concept” album in country music, with releases like What Ain’t to Be, Just Might Happen, which centered on a particular theme. “I always thought you owe it to yourself to stretch out once in a while,” Porter told Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean in 2000.
Amazingly, Porter was starting to garner an entire new generation of fans with his latest album, Wagonmaster, produced by Marty Stuart. He even opened for rock duo White Stripes at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden over the summer.
In his final days, Porter was uplifted by the daily phone calls from his good friend Merle Haggard. Porter’s daughter Debra Jean recalled, “He’d tell people who were there visiting him, ‘Merle’s gonna call me at noon.’ That meant so much to him.”
Just before his death, Debra Jean said her dad declared, “God knows me and I know God. And I’m ready to go.”
In addition to Debra Jean, Porter is survived by another daughter, Denise, and son Richard. He will be missed by family, friends and most of all, the country music community.
The Porter Profile
Highlights from the life and career of Porter Wagoner, who died Oct. 28 at age 80.
- Aug. 12, 1927––Porter is born near West Plains, Mo.
- 1951––Porter is hired by KWTO in Springfield, Mo., as a performer on a radio show that became the famous Ozark Jubilee.
- Oct. 30, 1954––Porter makes his chart debut with “Company’s Comin’.”
- July 9, 1955––Porter’s first No. 1 hit, “A Satisfied Mind”
- Feb. 23, 1957––Joins the Grand Ole Opry
- 1967––Dolly Parton joins Porter as the female singer on his TV series, The Porter Wagoner Show.
- 1970––Porter and Dolly win their first of two CMA awards for Vocal Duo of the Year.
- 2002––Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame
- May 19, 2007––Celebrates 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry
- June 5, 2007––Releases his final album, Wagonmaster