Porter's Revival: Forgotten country music star steps back into the spotlight

Friday, August 10, 2007
Porter Wagoner posed at his home in Nashville, Tenn., July 19. (ED RODE ~ Associated Press)

NEW YORK -- Porter Wagoner looks right at home in the marble lobby of Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel. He wears a dark Western suit and tie and holds a shiny black cane. The glare from the crystal chandelier reflects off his eyeglasses as he tilts his head back, trying to remember the last time he played Madison Square Garden.

Sometime in the 1970s ... one of those package tours ... Little Jimmie Dickens and Faron Young were there ... some others he can't recall ...

Back then, "The Thin Man from West Plains" was still the grand showman of country music with his rhinestone suits and pompadour hair. He had a TV show and dozens of hits on his own and with a pretty young blonde named Dolly Parton.

All that faded with time, and so did Wagoner. He checked into a psychiatric hospital for exhaustion, his show went off the air, he was dropped from his record label and dismissed as a relic. Last summer he nearly died.

Except for his standing gig on the Grand Ole Opry, he was mostly forgotten.


"I was thinking while on stage last night, 'This is the biggest, most well-known arena in the country, and here I am performing at it,"' he says the morning after a show with the White Stripes.

Only a few months ago, Wagoner, who's about to turn 80, would have said he'd done and seen everything in this business, that nothing could surprise him.

Boy, would he have been wrong.

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., has been Wagoner's weekend routine for as long as many can remember. As host and performer, he's the personification of the long-running country music show, much as Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff once were.

"He's relaxed, informal, folksy. Porter is country and rightly proud of it," says John Rumble, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame, of which Wagoner has been a member since 2002.

Wagoner dreamed of this since he was a farm boy in West Plains, Mo., a small town in the Ozark Mountains.

The budding star lit out for Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-'50s where he joined Acuff, Pearl, Bill Monroe and all the others he'd idolized.

"The Porter Wagoner Show" aired from 1960 until 1981, reaching more than 100 markets and 3.5 million viewers. He was doing 200 concerts a year besides television and records. He was exhausted.

"I stopped making records because I didn't like the way they were wanting me to record," he sighs. "When RCA dropped me from the label, I didn't really care about making records for another label because I didn't have any say in what they would release and how they would make the records and so forth."

That was 1981, after he had been with RCA almost 30 years. Except for the Grand Ole Opry and some work on the now defunct Nashville Network, his career dried up like an old corn stalk.

His slow comeback began in 2004 with a series of gospel records. Soon, he and Marty Stuart, a fellow Opry member with an appreciation for country's past, were plotting an album that would re-create the sound and feel of Wagoner's vintage recordings.

Released in June, "Wagonmaster" accomplishes what they set out to do. There are no superstar guests, just lots of fiddle and steel guitar backing Wagoner's grainy baritone.

Hailed as an unvarnished slice of Southern Gothic, the album brought Wagoner some of the best reviews of his career. A pair of well-received club shows in New York and Los Angeles bore them out. A new crop of fans in their 20s and 30s were discovering him.

Then came the kicker: An invitation from one of the biggest acts in the country, the White Stripes, to open their sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.

On the eve of his 80th birthday, Porter Wagoner was suddenly and improbably hip again.

It's easy to be awed by this place. Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali here. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton received their nominations here.

None of this is lost on Wagoner, who takes the stage in blue rhinestones.

"This is one of the tremendous thrills of my career to be here tonight in Madison Square Garden. God bless you," he says.

Wagoner performs seven songs. The crowd is still arriving as he plays, but even the most pierced and tattooed of the bunch seem curious.

His voice grows stronger with the first rain of applause, and when he gets to one of his biggest hits, "Green, Green Grass of Home," a good bit of the audience is singing along.

The next morning, in the elegant Roosevelt Hotel lobby, he's still taking it all in.

"The young people I met backstage, some of them were 20 years old. They wanted to get my autograph and tell me they really liked me. If only they knew how that made me feel, like a new breath of fresh air. To have new fans now is a tremendous thing."

Tears well in his eyes and one streams down his gaunt cheek. And just then one has to wonder whether "The Thin Man from West Plains" finally has seen everything.

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