EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Porter Wagoner in Black and White
Photo via The Country Music Hall of Fame
Like a lot of other families back in the 1950s, we owned a black-and-white television that sat in our parlor in front of the old red couch. It had a tiny little screen built into a large walnut cabinet and it was where I watched my favorite cowboy and Western shows that were popular back then. Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Kit Carson, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Rifleman, Davy Crockett, and all the rest. In the afternoons my sister watched and danced to American Bandstand, and after we went to sleep my folks would tune in adult shows like M Squad, Perry Mason, or The Naked City.
I was probably about 10 or 11 when my dad decided to step up our game by purchasing a 19-inch Zenith “portable” TV that weighed about a thousand pounds and was placed on a wheeled cart in my parents’ bedroom. It had a built-in rabbit-ears antenna and came with a small box that sat on the top with a round wire antenna screwed in. Although we wouldn’t have color until sometime after Apollo 11 and the moonwalk, we were one of the first on the block to get the low-budget UHF stations. Along with the three regular network stations, we now doubled our pleasure. Roller Derby, wrestling, and reruns of old shows were standard fare for these new stations, but it was The Porter Wagoner Show that I fell in love with.
“The Thin Man from West Plains” got his start in Missouri when his band The Blue Ridge Boys got their own radio show, and they broadcasted from the butcher shop where Wagoner worked. In 1951 he signed with RCA Victor, but it wasn’t until four years later that he got his first number one single, “A Satisfied Mind.” A featured performer on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee, he and his musical and business partner Don Warden relocated to Nashville in 1957 and joined the Grand Ole Opry. Over the next 25 years, Wagoner’s singles charted 81 times.
In 1960, with the Chattanooga Medicine Company as his sponsor, The Porter Wagoner Show made its debut. The 30-minute syndicated show broadcasted for an amazing 21 years. There were 686 episodes filmed, with the first 104 filmed in black-and-white. Each show included a couple songs by Wagoner and his band, one by the regular “girl singers” like Norma Jean, above, perhaps a gospel number, comedy from Speck Rhodes or Curly Harris, and the finale, often featuring the entire cast performing.
Tall and thin with a blond pompadour and usually dressed in rhinestone Nudie suits, Wagoner had an easy manner about him, was a congenial host, and throughout his music career pretty much stuck to classic country and spirituals. The first five years of the show featured Norma Jean, followed by Jeannie Seely for one season, and then, in 1966, 21-year-old Dolly Parton joined the cast. Together they released 13 duet albums and had 14 top ten hits, with Wagoner acting as producer and arranger for not only these, but also Parton’s early solo albums.
After seven years of working together, Parton left, prompting Wagoner to file a breach of contract lawsuit against her. They eventually settled out of court and didn’t reconcile again until shortly before his death in 2007. She sat with him on the day he passed away.
Parton explained her reason for leaving in a September 2008 Los Angeles Times article:
“I worked with Porter Wagoner on his show for seven years, and he was very much — I don’t mean this in a bad way, so don’t play it up that way — but he very much was a male chauvinist pig. Certainly a male chauvinist. He was in charge, and it was his show, but he was also very strong-willed. That’s why we fought like crazy, because I wouldn’t put up with a bunch of stuff.
“Out of respect for him, I knew he was the boss, and I would go along to where I felt this was reasonable for me. But once it passed points where it was like, your way or my way, and this is just to control, to prove to you that I can do it, then I would just pitch a damn fit. I wouldn’t care if it killed me. I would just say what I thought. I would do like the Doralee character and say, ‘I would turn you from a rooster to a hen if you don’t stop!’”
Before she left the show, she wrote “I Will Always Love You” for him, and it went on to become one of her most beloved songs.
I was about 14 years old when Wagoner and his band did a promotional appearance at the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, just across the bridge from Philadelphia. I stood at the lip of the stage as they played and just soaked up the Western outfits they all wore, the pedal steel guitar player, and, of course, Dolly.
Over the years, up until it went off the air, I’d check out the show from time to time, but it was the early black-and-white episodes that really left their mark on me. You can check out the list of guests here on Ranker, and if you want to see the full episodes they’re currently broadcasted on RFD-TV in America and the United Kingdom, and you’ll find many on YouTube. Let’s close it out with Willie, without the hair.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here at my own site, herealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org