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The Porter Wagoner Show

The Porter Wagoner Show was a syndicated musical variety show filmed in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1961 to 1980. It was one of the longest running, most influential, and most successful country music television shows of the late twentieth century.

Porter Wagoner was born in South Fork, Missouri, in 1927 and started his career in show business in 1951, performing on radio station KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. In 1954, during one of these weekly radio performances, country music star Red Foley heard Wagoner and asked him to join the country-themed television show Ozark Jubilee. The experience and exposure Wagoner gained from Ozark Jubilee became crucial to his future success in television.

In 1960 the Chattanooga Medicine Company launched a syndicated country music television show, named for its host as The Porter Wagoner Show. The program premiered on September 14, 1961. A typical show featured eight songs along with endorsement spots for products made by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. In 1972 the show became the first television program to be filmed at the television studios at Opryland. At its peak, the show was aired in nearly one hundred markets and was viewed by over three million people.

Wagoner always considered the program to be a collaborative effort with the members of his band and his guests; in this thinking, the show was the star and not the individual performers. Part of the formula for the show’s success was Wagoner’s decision to always have a featured female singer. In 1961 Norma Jean became the first woman to be featured heavily on the show, but she left in 1965. Jeannie Seely joined the show as Norma Jean’s replacement but left one year later after recording a hit record called Don’t Touch Me. In seeking a replacement for Jeannie Seely, Porter Wagoner auditioned many women singers, including Connie Smith, Dottie West, and Tammy Wynette. However, in the end, he offered Dolly Parton a position on the show, a move that would become the launching point for one of the biggest stars in country music. After Parton joined the show, the format included duets with her and Wagoner in each episode. Parton would perform with Wagoner for eight years and was subsequently replaced by Barbara Lea from 1974 to 1976. Lea was replaced by Linda Carol Moore, who continued with Wagoner until the end of the show.

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s relationship was tumultuous, alternately bitter and supportive. From the beginning Wagoner promoted Parton, endlessly confident in her abilities as a solo artist. The two recorded popular duet albums together in addition to their solo records. In 1974 Parton left the show to pursue a solo career. The two performers’ business dealings were intertwined at the time of Parton’s departure; this included both of them owning nearly equal shares of a production company and a complicated royalty agreement for Parton’s songs and income. As tensions between them rose, Wagoner filed a lawsuit against Parton in 1979; the case was settled out of court. Despite these difficulties, Parton and Wagoner maintained their acquaintance and performed together intermittently in later years.

By the end of the 1970s, The Porter Wagoner Show was struggling to keep up its ratings. The Chattanooga Medicine Company had stopped sponsoring the show in 1973, and Wagoner found it increasingly difficult to book the bigger stars. The show straggled into its final, twentieth season and was canceled in 1981.

In 1984 a new show, Porter Wagoner at Opryland, began to air on The Nashville Network but lasted only one season. In the same year, Wagoner became a full-time performer at the Grand Ole Opry, where he continued to perform continuously until shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2007.

The Porter Wagoner Show gave national exposure to country music during its twenty years on television. In addition to making Porter Wagoner a household name, it also launched the careers of many country music stars, not the least of whom was Dolly Parton. The show also acted as a model for later country music-themed variety shows, including two by Dolly Parton and The Johnny Cash Show.

Suggested Reading

Steve Eng, Satisfied Mind: The Country Music Life of Porter Wagoner (1992).

Published » January 05, 2010