Porter Wagoner, 80; star of Grand Ole Opry

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Times Staff Writer

Porter Wagoner, the blond pompadoured, rhinestone-encrusted personification of Nashville tradition, host of the longest-running country-music variety show in TV history and mentor to Dolly Parton, died Sunday night of lung cancer. He was 80.

Wagoner died at a hospice in Nashville, according to an announcement on the Grand Ole Opry’s website.

Parton recently went to a Nashville hospital to visit the man who inspired her best-known song, “I Will Always Love You,” after their acrimonious career split in the mid-1970s.


She described him then as very weak, but said Wagoner “had his wits and joked around,” and she vowed she would sing with him again at the Grand Ole Opry when he was ready. Wagoner was released from the hospital Friday and transferred to hospice care.

A little more than a year ago, Wagoner had been seriously ill after suffering an intestinal aneurysm, but defied a dire medical prognosis and recovered sufficiently to mount a career comeback that led to appearances last summer on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and an opening slot at Madison Square Garden with upstart rock band the White Stripes, whose members are ardent Wagoner fans.

Country singer and songwriter Marty Stuart, a generation younger than Wagoner, coaxed his childhood idol into a recording studio last winter to record a new album, “The Wagonmaster.” The recording brought Wagoner renewed attention, some of the best reviews of his career and created a new cachet among fans who are yet another generation younger than Stuart. The album also is expected to garner Wagoner at least one Grammy Award nomination from members of an industry that has long favored rewarding veterans who successfully reignite their careers.

When Wagoner performed in Los Angeles in June in conjunction with the album’s release, it wasn’t at an old-line country-music club, but at the trendy Safari Sam’s nightclub on the edge of Silver Lake and Hollywood. Performing in one of his signature jewel-laden western suits and dazzling silver cowboy boots, he was cheered by fans young enough to be his grandchildren -- and called it one of the biggest thrills of his life.

This year he also celebrated his 50th year as a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast. He returned to the country-music institution in March after recuperating from the aneurysm and resumed his role as one of the organization’s most recognizable stars.

Over a period of nearly 40 years, Wagoner placed 81 songs on the country-music chart, 19 of those duets with Parton, who joined his show in 1967 as a replacement for his first female co-star, Norman Jean. Wagoner and Parton were named country group and country duo of the year in 1970 and 1971 by the Country Music Assn.


Wagoner’s music often told dark tales of desperate people in stark terms that placed him in the gothic tradition of country music. This was best exemplified in his 1971 recording “The Rubber Room,” about a man who has been driven insane by an unfaithful lover. “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” a 1967 hit, recounted the tale of a husband returning home early from a business trip to find his wife in the arms of another man. Without directly describing the outcome, the song ends with the husband sitting in his cell on death row, asking himself, “Who taught who the cold hard facts of life?”

Porter Wagoner was born Aug. 12, 1927, in West Plains, Mo. He grew up helping out on the family farm, but when he wasn’t busy with farm chores he would spend hours standing on the trunk of a felled oak tree pretending he was host of the Grand Ole Opry, which he listened to religiously on the radio.

Once a neighboring farmer stumbled on the young man mimicking his act and asked what he was doing. When Wagoner told him of his dream to be an Opry star one day, the farmer told him, “You’re as close to the Grand Ole Opry as you’ll ever get. You’ll be looking these mules in the rear end when you’re 65.”

Recalling that incident backstage at the Opry earlier this year, Wagoner, who was surrounded in his kingly dressing room by photos showing him with hundreds of celebrity well-wishers who had joined him on the show over the years, just smiled and said with a gentle laugh, “I wish I could see him now.”

He got his first guitar from his older brother, Glenn, whose death before age 20 from a heart ailment hit Wagoner hard. He became determined to carry on his brother’s love for music. Working at a department store in West Plains, Wagoner was hired by the owner to sing on a radio show he sponsored.

His initial attempts at a recording career were less than stellar, as Wagoner simply attempted to copy the sound of his idol, Hank Williams. But he quickly realized that his only chance at a meaningful life in music was to be himself.


He wrote and recorded “A Satisfied Mind,” a song that discounts the rewards of the material world in favor of the facets of life that lead to peace of mind. It took him to the top of the country chart in 1955 for the first time and remained his biggest hit.

He sang with an unadorned, everyman voice, not the booming bass-baritone of a Johnny Cash, the jazz-inflected acrobatics of Willie Nelson or the bluegrass-steeped purity of a Vince Gill.

“I don’t try to show off a so-called beautiful voice, because I don’t feel my voice is beautiful,” Wagoner once said. “I believe there is a different kind of beauty, the beauty of being honest, of being yourself, of singing like you feel it.”

He reached the No. 1 spot two more times, in 1962 with “Misery Loves Company,” and a dozen years later with “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” a duet with Parton.

More than his own music, Wagoner’s greatest legacy was his syndicated TV series, “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which ran from 1960 to 1979.

When Parton left his TV show to launch a solo career that made her one of country’s biggest stars, Wagoner felt betrayed; meanwhile, she felt he had exploited her songwriting talent for his own benefit. Wagoner sued her, but they eventually settled the lawsuit and reconciled.


Part of the settlement was that Parton agreed to record another album with Wagoner during the height of her own success in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The session yielded a pair of hits, “Making Plans” and “If You Go, I’ll Follow You,” but failed to substantially revive Wagoner as a hit-maker.

Parton acknowledged writing “I Will Always Love You” as a peace offering to Wagoner, but she said it took him years to understand its message. The song was a hit for her three separate times -- when it was released in 1974, as a remake for the 1982 movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and in 1995 as a duet with Vince Gill. It became an international pop smash when Whitney Houston recorded it in 1992.

Wagoner’s old-school country style fell out of favor with Nashville, except for his role at the Opry, as country moved on in the ‘80s to younger, more pop-music minded stars such as Alabama. But Wagoner never relinquished his love for flashy Nudie Cohn-designed outfits.

At his Safari Sam’s performance in June, Stuart, who led his backing band, quipped that “they should rename Lankershim as Porter Wagoner Boulevard” for his undying patronage of the veteran North Hollywood western-wear designer.

Marty Stuart, who spent time as a member of Johnny Cash’s band in the ‘80s before launching a successful career of his own, grew up in Mississippi watching Wagoner’s TV show every Saturday afternoon with his father.

The album they recorded together, “The Wagonmaster,” resuscitated some of Wagoner’s old songs and added a few new ones.


Funeral services were pending.

Wagoner’s survivors include a son, Richard; and two daughters, Denise and Debra.