Porter Wagoner, a country singer who mixed rhinestone suits, a towering cotton-candy pompadour and cornball jokes with direct, simple songs over a career best known for his partnership with Dolly Parton, died Sunday in Nashville. He was 80 and lived in Nashville.
He had been hospitalized with lung cancer, the Grand Ole Opry said in announcing his death.
Mr. Wagoner had 81 singles on the country charts, including 29 Top 10 records. His hits included “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Skid Row Joe” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” He was famous for capturing straight up the raw emotions of people living tough lives, sometimes using his speaking voice in an old-time country technique called recitation.
For 21 years he was the host of “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which was eventually syndicated in 100 markets, reaching 3.5 million viewers a week and giving many of them their first brush with country music.
Mr. Wagoner wrote many of his songs and recorded some of country music’s earliest “concept albums,” in which individual tracks combine in a thematic whole. (One was “Soul of a Convict,” in 1967, which dealt with penitentiary themes.) He won three Grammy awards in the 1960s for gospel recordings he made with the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, among the biggest stars of Southern gospel.
Mr. Wagoner was a fixture of the Grand Ole Opry for more than half a century; in 1992, after the death of Roy Acuff, he became its unofficial spokesman. And if he didn’t exactly discover Ms. Parton, her regular appearances on his television show were the foundation of her career. The two won the Country Music Association’s duo of the year award three times.
Though Mr. Wagoner never achieved the sort of country music sainthood accorded Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, his pure adherence to traditional forms became esteemed. Waylon Jennings once said, “He couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.”
In its citation honoring his induction in 2002, the Country Music Hall of Fame called Mr. Wagoner “one of country’s elder statesmen.”
Yet he was hardly shy about making waves. After Ms. Parton left his show in 1974, there were lawsuits and countersuits between the two in a six-year legal tangle over business interests that produced not a few tabloid headlines. One reported that Mr. Wagoner’s wife had found him and Ms. Parton in bed and had shot both.
“There wasn’t nothing to that,” Mr. Wagoner told The Tennessean in 2000 (“with a wink,” the newspaper said). “She didn’t even hit Dolly.”
Mr. Wagoner riled country traditionalists in 1979 by inviting James Brown, the ”Godfather of Soul,” to the Opry. Though Mr. Brown performed the country standards “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Tennessee Waltz” — Mr. Wagoner had taught him the songs — his rendition of his own “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” generated hate mail.
Mr. Wagoner’s life had elements of an old-fashioned country song. He was born on Aug. 12, 1927, on a farm where mules still pulled the plow, near West Plains, Mo., in the Ozark mountains. He sold the pelts of rabbits he trapped to scrape together the $8 he needed to buy his first guitar, a National, from Montgomery Ward. He spent hours pretending that the stump of a felled oak tree was the Opry stage and that he was introducing country stars. He quit school in the seventh grade.
After bad times forced the family to auction off their farm, they moved to West Plains, where a local butcher hired Mr. Wagoner. When the butcher heard him play the guitar, he put him on the radio to sing advertisements. In 1951 Mr. Wagoner moved to a station in Springfield, Mo., and signed a record contract the next year with Steve Sholes, the same R.C.A. producer who signed Elvis Presley three years later.
In 1953, Mr. Wagoner spent $350 to buy his first Nudie suit, as the extravagant rhinestone-studded creations by Nudie Cohn were called. Mr. Wagoner’s was a peach-colored outfit with wagon wheels on it. He ultimately owned 50 of them, paying $8,000 to $12,000 each, and epitomized the style country fans call “hillbilly deluxe.”
A special feature on most of his suits was the word “Hi!” in foot-high letters on each side of the lining. He would throw the jacket open when he saw somebody snapping his picture.
Mr. Wagoner’s early success included recordings and a regional television show. In 1960, he joined the Opry and started what became his syndicated national TV show, presenting guests who included almost any country star of consequence, like Roger Miller, George Jones and Kitty Wells.
In 1967, his vocal accompanist, Norma Jean, left, and Ms. Parton succeeded her. In addition to the show, the two had great success touring and recording together. They had a string of hit duets, including “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” which they wrote. It rose to No. 1 in October 1974. The two are seen as the forerunners of other country duets like those of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Mr. Wagoner had several long periods when he did not record or tour, sometimes explaining that there was little good material available. The lyrics in at least two of his songs came from spending time in a Nashville mental hospital. One, “Committed to Parkview,” was written by Johnny Cash about a Nashville institution in which both men had stayed. The song is part of an album Mr. Wagoner released last year, “The Rubber Room: The Haunting Poetic Songs of Porter Wagoner, 1966-1977.”
At 16, Mr. Wagoner married Velma Johnson, and they divorced before his next birthday. In 1946, he married Ruth Olive Williams; they separated in 1966 and divorced in 1986. He is survived by his children Richard, Denise and Debra.
Mr. Wagoner was known for songs that ended with startling twists. In “I Knew This Day Would Come,” a young woman leaves her aging husband for a young lover, only to find herself in the same situation years later. In “Albert Erving” he tells of a very lonely man who has carved an exquisite portrait of a beautiful woman, Kathleen. It turns out he had only dreamed of her.
For all Mr. Wagoner’s accomplishments, he could not escape a certain question. “Did you sing with Dolly?” too many people asked.
“No,” he would say with a smile. “She sang with me.”
- August, 12, 1927
- West Plains, Missouri
- October, 28, 2007
- Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death
- Lung cancer
- Woodlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum
- Nashville, Tennessee