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Entertainment News

Sunday, 9 December, 2007 11:36 PM

CMA: Porter Wagoner 1927-2007

PHOTO BY CHRIS HOLLO / HOLLOPHOTOGRAPHICS, INC.

Porter Wagoner backstage at the Grand Ole Opry

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

When Porter Wagoner, known as "The Thin Man from West Plains" because of his lanky frame, succumbed to lung cancer, at 8:25 PM/CST on Oct. 28 in Nashville, a piece of Country Music history slipped into its rhinestone-studded jacket, stowed its guitar and headed toward the stage door.

Wagoner, who had survived an abdominal aneurysm in 2006, made his exit quickly, being hospitalized on Oct. 15 and released to hospice care on Oct. 26. But before then, he had flourished for half a century as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, pioneered the fusion of Country Music and television as host for 21 years of "The Porter Wagoner Show," won three CMA Awards and four Grammy Awards, helped Dolly Parton and Mel Tillis launch their careers, and then joined them in 2002 as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In addition to these accomplishments was the impact Wagoner made on countless fans who embraced him as one of their favorite entertainers. His homespun humor and accessible vocal style captivated radio listeners for generations. The gaudy outfits, upswept hair and room-lighting smile were indispensible elements in his live shows - but for those who could only listen from hundreds or thousands of miles away, the sound and feeling of the man, as broadcast from Nashville, were enough to make him seem like a friend.

"This is a terrible loss for the music industry on many different levels," said CMA CEO Tammy Genovese. "Musically, the 'Wagonmaster' contributed a great deal to the format with his voice, his humor and his undeniable charm. He was a consummate showman, wrapped like a bright and precious gift to the nation in his trademark rhinestone-studded suits. He is an unforgettable figure in Country Music history. He will be missed. Our prayers go out to his children Debra, Denise and Richard and their families."

Porter Wayne Wagoner was born on Aug. 12, 1927, in the Ozark Mountain region of southwestern Missouri. Raised in West Plains, educated in a one-room schoolhouse, he worked as a young man by day in a butcher shop and as a Country performer at night. His style grew from its bluegrass roots into a synthesis of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and other contemporaries, blended with Wagoner's own evolving sound. In 1951, he became a regular on the KWTO program, out of Springfield, Mo., that would become "The Ozark Jubilee." A year later he made his recording debut for RCA Victor, and the following year Carl Smith turned Wagoner's "Trademark" into a hit.

"A Satisfied Mind" hit No. 1 in 1955 and conveyed Wagoner to Nashville and membership in the Grand Ole Opry two years later. In 1960, he launched "The Porter Wagoner Show." Its mix of traditional Country Music, comedy sketches, and guest shots by established and upcoming stars helped it earn syndication to more than 100 television stations and expanded its audience to more than 3 million by the early '70s. It also introduced the world to Parton, Wagoner's protégée and duo partner. Through their seven-year association, they won three CMA Vocal Duo of the Year Awards, earned a Grammy and cut 14 songs that wound up in the Top 10, including "Just Someone I Used to Know," "Making Plans" and the chart-topping "Please Don't Stop Loving Me."

In his solo work, Wagoner reflected extraordinary range. His songs, whether self-penned or selected to reflect the complexity of his artistry, combined elements that would seem incompatible in the hands of a lesser artist. Yet Wagoner displayed consistent insight as an interpreter, whether delivering gospel songs, playfully humorous material, stoic recitations or descents toward the depths of a tortured soul. From "Company's Comin'" (1954) and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry (Tomorrow You'll Cry)" (1955) through the stark, fiddle-haunted introduction to "Albert Erving" from his last album, Wagonmaster (2007) produced by Marty Stuart and released on ANTI-Records, from his gigs with the Blue Ridge Boys in his early 20s to his appearance in July as the opening act for The White Stripes at a sold-out show at New York's Madison Square Garden, his legacy is unique and secure.

"I may not be the world's greatest singer," Wagoner said in his 2007 interview with CMA Close Up. "But I know how to sing Country Music. I know what separates Country from other kinds of music. I've learned that it's important, if you're a singer or an entertainer, to know what you're doing. You need to study this business as if you were going to be a doctor, a lawyer or a man that makes big decisions. You never do find out all there is to know in your lifetime. But you learn from that process every day - and you don't forget what you learn."

Amen, Porter.

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