Porter Wagoner – Hillbilly deluxe
“That was my first real exposure to country music,” Wagoner says, then laughs. “My first exposure to the ‘big time,’ I mean. I was actually never exposed to anything that wasn’t country music. The radio we had was for weekends mostly, but during the week sometime we’d listen to a thing called ‘The Suppertime Frolic’ on WJJD in Chicago. ‘Course on Saturday night we’d tune in the Grand Ole Opry.”
During the years bookended by the start and end of World War II, big country stars still visited little country towns. Anywhere in the Ozarks was near enough to Nashville that members of the Grand Ole Opry could play dates there during the week and still drive back in time for Saturday night Opry commitments. The Opry’s biggest star at the time, for instance, Roy Acuff, came to nearby West Plains, Missouri, in 1942. The concert he put on taught the young Porter a lesson he never forgot: It’s a show.
“He had one of the best-rounded-out shows I’ve ever seen,” Wagoner says of Acuff, though he could as easily be describing his own shows for the last half-century. “Acuff had a girl singer, and a comedian, everybody was cutting up and joking. I liked that very much.”
The Wagoners were big fans of another Opry star, Bill Monroe, and of bluegrass music generally (typical of mid-century Ozarkers). “Back in those early days, Monroe came through a lot with his tent show and his baseball team,” Porter recalls. “My mom and dad would always take me to see Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. [Monroe] told me in later years that he remembered me from then. He said, ‘Porter, you come to just about every show I ever did ’round there.’ I’m not sure if he really remembered me or not, but I was sure glad to hear him say it.
“He also told me that if I ever washed up in country music, he’d hire me as a bluegrasser,” Porter laughs. Perhaps Big Mon appreciated the singer’s square-dance-ready take on “Uncle Pen”, the Monroe-written standard that became Wagoner’s fifth charting single in 1956.
“My mom and dad had a record player since as far back as I could remember,” he continues. “It was one of the old kinds that you crank up and play the big records — the 78s. I learned a lot of Bill Monroe songs that way. And I learned some of the real old Stanley Brothers songs, too. I learned [Carter Stanley’s] ‘White Dove’ off the big record…I remember years and years later I went into the studio to record it with Ralph [for 1998’s Clinch Mountain Country], and he handed me a copy of the lyrics. I said, ‘Ralph, I don’t need the lyrics. I know the words.'”
He was learning to be a master of ceremonies as well, though these lessons were self-taught. In a story he’s told often, the young Porter liked to stand on a stump in the front yard and imagine he was hosting the Grand Ole Opry. He’d introduce Ernest Tubb, say, then hop quickly off the stump to make way for his guest star. Then, when Porter bounced back atop the stump, he was Ernest Tubb (“Thank you, Porter. I’m glad to be on the show with you.”) — singing “Walking The Floor” while strumming the chords his older brother Glenn had taught him on a mail-order National guitar. Then he’d introduce another guest.
Once, a neighbor boy overheard Porter playing “Opry” while the would-be MC was plowing the family fields. Busted, Wagoner confessed what he was up to, but the kid just laughed. “He said, ‘You’re as close to the Grand Ole Opry as you’ll ever get,'” Wagoner told writer Dale Vinicur in 1991. “‘You’ll be looking these mules in the rear-end when you’re 65.'”
Nineteen and forty-three was a cold, hard year for the Wagoners. Porter’s father had long suffered with arthritis, and as it worsened, it became impossible for him to work in the fields. Porter and his brother Glenn picked up the slack as best they could until Glenn, too, fell ill. The doctor in town diagnosed an enlarged heart, and that summer, after a lengthy hospital stay, Glenn died. The family buried their loved one, auctioned the farm, moved the ten or so miles to West Plains, and tried to pick up the pieces. Porter was 15.
Wagoner landed a gas station job almost before the family had unpacked. According to Steve Eng’s A Satisfied Mind: The Country Music Life Of Porter Wagoner, the young man would, over the next several years, deliver groceries, sell Jeeps, work at a Dr. Pepper plant, and cobble on an International Shoe Company assembly line. He also worked (during a brief relocation to Peoria, Illinois) at a Caterpillar tractor factory.
All this to help his parents, of course, but there were new mouths to feed, too. Porter married at 16 but divorced before his 17th birthday. He married his second wife, Ruth, when he was 18, and not long afterward became a father. Still, Wagoner made time in his hectic new life for music. He performed at the Howell County Jamboree with his own group, the Oak Street Pals, and now and then he’d sing a couple of numbers on local station KWPM (Keep West Plains Moving!).
On a few occasions, he even traveled to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. In the summer of 1949, Porter witnessed Hank Williams bring down the house with “Lovesick Blues” during what likely was Hank’s Opry debut, a story retold to Stuart during a conversation included at the end of Wagonmaster.
Williams certainly impressed the young singer. Wagoner recorded “Lovesick Blues” twice while still in West Plains — initially, along with “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, at his first “recording session” (which yielded a pair of $1 acetates). The second session produced 78s (“the big records”); he then road-tripped with musician friends to St. Louis to place them in Howell County jukeboxes.
Wagoner’s first break arrived when he was working as a meat cutter’s apprentice in West Plains. Porter sang while he worked — usually older numbers his mother or his sister Loraine had taught him, like “An Old Log Cabin For Sale” or “Jimmie Brown The Newsboy”, but Williams songs too. His boss enjoyed the apprentice’s musical gifts and thought others might as well; he also saw a way to move some meat. His “singing butcher” began hosting a morning program on KWPM.
That radio exposure soon led to a one-song audition — “Lovesick Blues”, naturally — at KWTO in Springfield, and just like that, Wagoner was in the music business, a full-time employee, $35 a week, at the biggest country station in the Ozarks.
Wagoner lived and worked not quite eight years in West Plains, not much longer than he’d reside in Springfield, and he hasn’t lived in the region at all for half a century. Still, Wagoner considers West Plains his hometown and a key to his performing identity. Wagoner is “The Thin Man from West Plains,” per Ralph Emery, the Nashville DJ who gave him the nickname. What the flooding Mississippi was to Johnny Cash, what the south San Joaquin is to Merle Haggard, that’s what the Ozarks mean to Porter Wagoner.
Of course, the only road to becoming a favorite son is the one out of town. Not even a week after his KWTO audition, and with his wife and son dropped off at his folks’ house, Porter hit Missouri State Highway 63 and headed to Springfield. Today, the stretch of Missouri 63 that runs through West Plains is called “Porter Wagoner Boulevard.”
Wagoner returned home in 1964 to record Porter Wagoner, In Person, one of country music’s earliest live albums. He was a big man then: an Opry member with nine top-10 country hits and the host of his own syndicated TV show. But when he left West Plains in 1951 and moved the 110 miles west to Springfield, he was just another Ozark hillbilly come to town.