For a man as shamelessly flashy as he'd been all his life, Porter Wagoner nonetheless maintained his hard country edge right up until his death this week at 80. That edge was forged in his native West Plains, Mo., and its hallmark was a distinctly Hank Williams-influenced honky tonk sound. But his flash was pure Grand Ole Opry rhinestone--a notch or two more outrageous than Williams, no slouch of a showman himself, had been in his day.
Wagoner may be most famous today for launching the career of Dolly Parton in 1967, but by then he'd already been an Opry member with his own syndicated television show for a decade. And he'd already penned a list of hits--including "Trademark," "Company's Comin'" and "Satisfied Mind"--long enough to ensure his induction into country music's hall of fame. But with Parton by his side, Wagoner's career was propelled to a higher level. The duo would enjoy a seven-year string of chart-topping singles starting with 1968's "The Last Thing on My Mind." Still, when Wagoner and Parton split ways, she would go on to become the bigger star--and he was widely perceived as having attempted to hold her back. (He sued her in 1979 for breach of contract, but the two settled out of court). Parton couldn't have taken it too badly: she wrote "I Will Always Love You" for him.
With the exception of a few cameos (including a role in the 1982 Clint Eastwood movie "Honkytonk Man"), Wagoner receded from the limelight in the 1980s. He returned this year for one last victory lap: on the eve of his 50th anniversary as an Opry member, Wagoner released the Marty Stewart-produced "Wagonmaster," a surprisingly strong return to his classic country roots. Unlike the Nudie suits he sported onstage, there was nothing too fancy about about his final record--highlights of which included the foot-stomping fiddle tune "Eleven Cent Cotton" and a haunting Johnny Cash original, "Committed to Parkview," about the mental hospital both men were uncomfortably familiar with (Wagoner for exhaustion, Cash for pills).
Like Cash before him, Wagoner lived long enough to enjoy a late-in-life reappraisal that introduced him to a generation of new fans--earlier this year he opened for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden. And yet it still feels like he left too soon. Looking back at his startling legacy, it almost seems as if the Thin Man from White Plains, Mo., lived his life with one as firmly planted in country's honky tonk past even as the other simultaneously stepped (hell, strutted) a pace or two ahead of his time.
NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker spoke at length with Porter Wagoner--visibly frail due to the stomach aneurysm that nearly killed him last year--in his Grand Ole Opry dressing room in May, just hours before he celebrated his 50th anniversary there. Excerpts:
You had an aneurysm last year. It's somewhat amazing that you're here not only to celebrate your 50th but with a new album to boot.
God really blessed me and looked out for me and wanted me to get this album under my belt.
Have you always been a man of faith?
More so now than I ever have been in my lifetime. When I went into the surgery I was really scared because the doctor had told me this is the most serious operation there is. I prayed about that. I asked God to go with me, and He really did. I wasn't afraid anymore. That was a great feeling. I never had that feeling before, never experienced anything like that in my life before.
You found religion just last year?
I just found myself. I [became] a lot more serious with my belief. I really experienced a close friendship and relationship with God that I never felt before in my life.
Are you looking forward to touring? Or are you slowing down?
I really look forward to it more than I [used to]. I don't try to push myself too much. I can tell when I need to rest a while and I do. I just take my time in doing things, more than I did before. But I can do the things that I've done before and do them well. I really enjoy the fact that I can still do it. That's one of the things that was so neat about this album. It was so easy for me to do.
What do you think of the younger generation of country musicians?
I listen to all the guys I'm associated with--Vince Gill and Alan Jackson. A couple weeks ago I attended the ceremony for the newest members for the hall of fame. You can always tell if a guy knows where his roots are and what he's doing. I don't really care for [country music today] because I think it's too planned, too slick. I like the real thing. I like George Strait really well because there's no BS about him. The young guys, I think they really don't know how to be good yet.
What advice would you give them?
"Study your craft more." There's a reason somebody is good. It's because they work hard on their craft and work hard on their career. And they want to be good.
You're famous for your flashy suits. On a special night like tonight, when you're celebrating your 50th anniversary at the Opry, how do you decide what to wear?
[Laughs.] White has a way of making you stand out in a crowd. Any color you might have, white will always bring the eyes on you. So I'll show you my suit. [He goes to his bathroom and pulls out a whine rhinestone suit.]
Wow. It's gorgeous. Are you excited? Or do you still get nervous?
I'm excited about it and a little nervous too. My sister's going to be here and I haven't seen her in a couple years. She's never seen me on the Opry before. She's my oldest sister – she's 89 and she's never flown before. She's flying down for this. She's on the new album, she wrote a song. She writes gospel music.
Speaking of the new album, there's a song by Johnny Cash on it, "Committed to Parkview," which he wanted you to sing. Tell that story.
Johnny wrote that back in '81. Johnny was over somewhere in England and [producer] Marty Stuart had taken some tapes of my stuff with him. Him and cash was listening to it. John said, "I got a song to take to him; I think he'll record this because I think he was at the same hospital I was in, Parkview." He gave Marty a copy of the tape. Marty took it home and it got lost somewhere in his office. Three or four years later he told me the story and said "I can't find that song. I've looked everywhere for it." [Laughs.] I threatened him about it: "You better find it." And he did. Boy, I loved the song.
And Dolly is coming out to sing with you tonight. What does that mean for you?
She's probably the most important person in my life that I wanted to be part of the show.
So there are no bad feelings between you?
There wasn't really ever no bad feelings between Dolly and I. When you get two attorneys together you got a problem: Dolly's attorney and my attorney both wanted to make money out of the thing. So they're going to find all kind of things that can stir up trouble. I never stopped loving Dolly and she didn't me either because we were both smart enough to know what was going on. We had a very simple arrangement between the two of us, so we finally talked about it and said "this is crazy, people thinking we're enemies when we're really not." She's wrote ["I Will Always Love You"] for me! That ain't the kind of song you write for somebody if you didn't like them.
You got James Brown to play the Opry in 1979. What were your thoughts when you heard he passed this year?
He was a wonderful entertainer, boy. He was top drawer. I went to go see him one time across the river from New York City. I was going to play there on a Sunday. And I went in a day early and I went to their show. It was James Brown, Fats Domino, Little Richard. I mean it was heavy duty. It was a knockout show, so good. I got to meet James that night. I went backstage after the show was over and I told him I was a big fan of his. I didn't talk to him again for over a year. I got to thinking about he Grand Ole Opry and having him as a guest some time because he's such a brilliant entertainer. I knew he'd knock the audience out. I called him he said "hell, I'd love to do that." I told James he'd need to do two or three Hank Williams songs. I said "sing a couple pretty ballads and then get into some of your own music, like 'Get Up Offa That Thing,' 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.' But before you get into it, get them prepared." He was just outstanding. It's one of the things I'm most proud that I've done.
You used to have quite the reputation as a ladies' man. Do you have any vices still?
[Laughs.] I'm not like I once was. I slowed down a whole lot. I never drank any in my life. Never have. Just never liked the taste of whiskey, and beer I don't care for at all. I never got into drugs; I seen what it's done to a lot of people. I been on the straight and narrow all my life. I used to run around a lot with women. I enjoyed that. I had a good way with them. But I don't do that like I used to. I'm not really serious with anyone right now. I got some grandkids and I kinda got into them. I took one of them to California on a couple trips with me. The other one I took to New York with me. And I write a lot of songs, a lot of music. I enjoy writing now because I can spend a lot of time doing it.