Author: Fox, Jon

Porter Wagoner, R.I.P
As soon as I saw the news on my computer screen, I went and dug out the album. That was about six weeks ago, when I noticed that Porter Wagoner had been booked for the River City Bluegrass Festival in Portland in January. The album was MThe Cold Hard Facts of Life, my favorite Porter record, in part because of its world-class cover photo, which I’ll get to. My plan was to get Porter to sign this album at the festival. My life would be a bit more complete at that point.

I played the album again a few weeks later as soon as I saw the news on my computer screen. Porter Wagoner was dead. It had been announced in the newspapers a few days earlier that he had lung cancer, and then a couple of days later that he had entered a hospice. So it wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but still kind of a shock.

Porter Wagoner was one of my portals into country music, through his syndicated television show. I started watching the show probably when I was about 12, in 1965. In Dayton, Ohio, it aired on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, when air time was cheapest, and I watched it whenever I happened to run across it. There were only two channels then, so it wasn’t like you had a lot of options. I didn’t really like country music much at that point, except for Buck Owens, but I liked Porter and I liked his show.

Being a fledgling know-it-all in 1965, I “knew” that country music wasn’t as cool as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or, my favorites, the Animals. So I probably watched the show at first through a filter of condescension, ready to laugh. But Porter won me over the same way he won over every other viewer of his show—by being so nice, so normal, so human, so comfortably himself. Despite his pompadour and Nudie suit (which was impressive even in black-and-white), Porter seemed pretty cool for a grown-up.

I liked Norma Jean, Porter’s “girl singer” before Dolly Parton, because she looked like one of the teachers at my school. But I liked Porter because he was the best I’d ever seen in my young life at selling a song. He’d look directly into the camera, sing a straightforward song, often a story song, and make you understand the importance of each word. He was so sincere, you wanted to pay attention. His songs made sense—there were no hidden meanings or unanswered questions, and that was appealing to me.

When Porter would sing a song like “Green, Green Grass of Home,” the sadness of the song came through so much more clearly than in the pop hit version by Tom Jones, which was on Top 40 radio, that it made me rethink some of my assumptions. I gradually came to the realization that “cool” was an inordinately flexible concept, that it was earned rather than decreed and that, when you got right down to it, Nudie suits and pompadours were pretty darn cool.

What Porter Wagoner helped teach me was that you must approach every musician on his or her own terms, judge the music accordingly and make only one decision: whether you liked the music or not. That lesson has done well by me through the years and I thank Porter for making me a more open-minded individual.

Porter’s album covers were among the best in country music. Porter was a bit like a “method actor” in this area, as he liked his album covers to convey something of the mood of the album, usually in a very literal representation of the story told in the title song. Wagoner was more involved creatively with his album covers than most other country artists of the period, and he carved out a memorable niche for himself with such albums as Bottom of the Bottle, Confessions of a Broken Man and Skid Row Joe. Porter could look pretty convincing as a derelict.

My favorite album cover of his is The Cold Hard Facts of Life, on which Porter also looked pretty convincing as a man about to kill his wife and her boyfriend. That’s one thing about Porter—he never shied away from the weird side of life. He probably recorded more disturbing, downright psychotic songs than any country singer who didn’t do time in prison (sorry, Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe, et al), songs like “The Rubber Room,” “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” “The First Mrs. Jones,” and so on. I used to love it when he sang one of those stone-crazy songs on his show and then looked at the camera, grinning. Whoa, buddy.

One last thing I always liked about Porter Wagoner was that he such an unabashed bluegrass fan, as was I. He recorded bluegrass songs throughout his career, on such fine albums as Howdy, Neighbor, Howdy, which included “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home,” “Little Cabin Home In The Hills,” “Before I Met You” and “Head Over Heels In Love With You.” His other albums were liberally sprinkled with bluegrass and old-time country songs—“Uncle Pen,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Rocky Top,” “Will You Be Lovin’ Another Man,” “Ole Slewfoot,” “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” and “Tennessee Stud.”

Porter’s weekly show was one of the few places you could see bluegrass on TV in the 1960s and 1970s. His band, the Wagon Masters, included fiddler Mack Magaha (of the great Reno & Smiley band) and banjo picker Buck Trent, and Porter turned the boys loose at least once a show. He also featured bluegrass bands as guest stars on a regular basis. I can remember seeing Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass with a young Marty Stuart, Don Reno & Bill Harrell, and I’m sure there were many others I can’t remember.

Porter Wagoner was a one-of-a-kind entertainer, and one of the most natural program hosts in the history of television. If you haven’t already done so, you should read Chuck Poling’s eloquent eulogy for Porter at (I wish I’d thought of Chuck’s ending, so I could use it here—it’s perfect.) Thanks to his long-running TV program, I think that Americans had a different kind of relationship with Porter Wagoner than we had with other country stars. Porter’s comfortable presence, reinforced by a weekly visit, made him one of the family. His death leaves an empty place at the table.

Posted:  11/11/2007

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email