Country music icon Porter Wagoner defined the genre’s image during the 1960s and 1970s with his blonde pompadour, dazzling stage wear, and down-home friendly manner. But his stage persona sometimes overshadowed the creativity and business acumen that he possessed. A television pioneer, songwriter, publisher, producer, and studio owner, Wagoner influenced and excelled at nearly every outlet the music business had to offer.
Porter Wayne Wagoner was born into hardscrabble farm life eighteen miles south of West Plains, Missouri, on August 12, 1927. Like many roots musicians from his era, Wagoner first discovered his love for music by singing at church and listening to his idols Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry. When his sister married into a musical family, Wagoner soon found an outlet for his budding talents, singing in public for the first time at age ten. He dreamed of becoming a professional singer from an early age–a dream cemented when he met a kind and encouraging Roy Acuff before attending one of the Opry star’s legendary tent shows in West Plains. Acuff’s advice to work hard, practice a lot, and commit wholeheartedly to his pursuits, combined with his showmanship onstage, made an impression on the young Wagoner that he would remember for the rest of his career.
The summer after Wagoner completed his formal education at age fifteen, debt forced the family to auction off their belongings and move into town. Here Wagoner put together his first musical group and began playing shows in the local area. He moved from job to job, always willing to jeopardize his day job for a music gig. But after marrying Ruth Williams in 1946, he sought steady employment, first at a shoe factory and then at Vaughan’s Market, landing a job behind the meat counter. This turned into Wagoner’s big break when Sid Vaughan, impressed with his employee’s singing, bought a fifteen-minute radio spot on the local station, KWMP, where Wagoner performed live from the grocery store. This led to his discovery by Springfield radio station KWTO and then a recording contract with RCA in 1952.
Wagoner’s first RCA recordings did not sell well, but he cowrote the song “Trademark,” which Carl Smith made a hit, and he continuously toured with his Porter Wagoner Trio. His first hit records, “Company’s Comin’” and “Satisfied Mind” came in 1954 and 1955, earning him a spot on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee, the first nationally broadcast country music television series, which was headquartered in Springfield, Missouri. But Nashville called, and Wagoner, after wrangling out of his contract in Springfield, headed with his band to Music City USA and the Grand Ole Opry. He joined the cast on February 23, 1957.
In Nashville Wagoner continued his songwriting, recording, and touring, and delved into the publishing industry, securing valuable copyrights for his own and others’ songs. He recorded a string of hits, many of which explored darker themes of alcoholism, infidelity, murder, and madness. His television experience brought him to the attention of producers looking to create a syndicated country music television show for sponsor Chattanooga Medicine Company. Wagoner’s warmth and sincerity made him a big hit with audiences and sold a great deal of patent medicines for the sponsor. The show ran until 1981, airing in one hundred markets at its peak and making Porter Wagoner a household name.
The Porter Wagoner Show helped jumpstart the careers of many performers, including Norma Jean, Mel Tillis, and, famously, Dolly Parton. Wagoner mentored, managed, and produced the budding superstar Parton through her early career. They collaborated on songs, recorded each others’ compositions, and forged an extremely successful duet career, charting fourteen top-ten singles. However, when Parton decided to dissolve the ties in 1974, there was much bitterness, culminating in a 1979 lawsuit brought by Wagoner that was finally settled out of court.
Wagoner’s recording success waned in the mid-1970s, but he remained in demand as a touring act and as a perennial favorite on the Grand Ole Opry. After the death of Roy Acuff in 1992, Wagoner stepped in as ambassador for the Grand Ole Opry and Opryland theme park. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
Wagoner never stopped writing or recording, amassing over eighty record albums and hundreds of compositions. The most celebrated album project of his later career would come shortly before his death. Wagonmaster, produced by Marty Stuart, was released by the punk label Anti Records. The project tapped into Wagoner’s cult status and placed the hard-country stalwart in an opening slot for the rock act the White Stripes in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Shortly after celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member, Wagoner entered the hospital, diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on October 28, 2007.