Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wagoner was personification of real country music

by Steve Grant, KY3 News

BRANSON, Mo. - Porter Wagoner was a Grand Ole Opry legend with deep roots in the Ozarks. In Springfield, Nashville and Branson, lots of people are reliving their memories of his music and 60-year career. Wagoner died Sunday night from lung cancer. Like major league baseball's Preacher Roe, Wagoner put West Plains on the map and was the personification of real country music.



Wagoner's stardom started with Ozark Jubilee, telecast nationwide from Springfield in the ‘50s. That was a few years after Wagoner moved from West Plains to Springfield to work for powerhouse radio station KWTO.

Wagoner idolized Hank Williams but realized just sangin' and twangin' wouldn't pay the bills, so he wrote the instant hit, "A Satisfied Mind," in 1957, moved to Nashville, got on the Grand Ole Opry and met a rhinestone suit designer.

"He said, ‘When you get on that stage, they’ll say "awweee,"' and they did," said Wagoner’s sister, Lorraine Hall, who lives in Springfield.

He also took what he learned about performing on the Jubilee, and worked it into his own TV show, which other country music stars stayed away from. It was on the air 21 years, the longest running show of its kind in TV history.

"The theory was, if they see you on television, they won't buy tickets. That was what their thoughts were in those days," Wagoner once said in an interview with WSMV.

His laid-back Ozarks style made him the ambassador of country music. He was a Country Music Hall of Famer, and four-time Grammy winner for his gospel work.

Wagoner was a company man. He stayed in Nashville, and with the Grand Ole Opry. He never came to Branson but three of his former co-stars perform there now.

Dolly Parton is a co-owner of Dixie Stampede. For years, until their TV, musical and personal breakup, Wagoner and Parton were country music. Her song, "I Will Always Love You," was about him for giving her a chance. They later patched up their relationship and Parton visited him in the hospital shortly before his death and vowed to sing a duet with him when he recovered from lung cancer.

Norma Jean Martin was his original co-star and says she learned the ropes of performing from Wagoner. She says she learned from Wagoner how to sing on stage and how to connect with an audience.

Down the road, banjo player Buck Trent remembers Wagoner as being as generous financially as he was professionally.

"He was first big performer in Nashville to split his pay with his band. He was like that," said Trent.

Everybody who knew or worked with Wagoner considered him a faithful friend. But his 90-year-old sister was his lifelong confidant.

"We were not twins but I could have been his twin. He ran to me if I was in trouble and I ran to him if I was in trouble," said Hall.

The Opry's master showman was 80 years old. He never claimed to have a beautiful voice -- just beautiful honesty in what he sang.

Wagoner did one more album a few months before his death. "Wagonmaster" was inspired and produced by fellow singer Marty Stuart, who coaxed his childhood idol back into the recording studio. Its release introduced an old-style country favorite to a whole new generation of fans.

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