Porter Wagoner – Hillbilly deluxe
Porter Wagoner screams “hillbilly,” from his cadence to his clothes to his decor. And not just for fans who wear that badge with honor, either, but for those assorted snobs who still deploy “hillbilly” like it was a rock they were slinging at something not quite human.
In his pointed and hilarious working-class polemic, The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks And White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats, Jim Goad remembers:
Standing there beside impossible-breasted hillbilly belle Dolly Parton…stiff and stilt-like in his rhinestone red peacock suit, wearing a gilded pompadour on a head thinner than a peanut, Porter Wagoner made me feel ashamed.
No wonder. City dwellers have long derided the “hillbilly” (a term invented, of course, by urbanites, first appearing in a New York magazine in 1900) as randy and lazy and taciturn, ignorant and primitive, inbred and dangerous. Concurrent with those images, however, the Appalachian mountaineer is idealized as innocent and independent, admirably stoic, and just more down-to-earth authentic than city folk. There may be Ernest T. Bass and Deliverance types in them thar hills, but there’s also always been Sgt. Yorks and Davy Crocketts.
The Ozarker, by contrast, is a more recent hillbilly stereotype — and one notably stripped of positive attributes. To the extent that Ozarkians reside as a distinct type in the nation’s popular imagination at all, it’s as the butt of the joke on TV sitcoms and in the funny papers. The Clampetts lived near the imaginary Ozark village of Bugtussle before they struck oil and moved to Beverly. Li’l Abner Yokam and Dasie Mae Scragg, of Dogpatch, Arkansas, fussed and feuded in the comics for decades, just across the fold from that notorious layabout Snuffy Smith. Today’s best-known real-world Ozarker is probably Springfield native John Aschcroft.
The Ozarks have more to offer than such benighted stereotypes, particularly when it comes to country music. From gospel songwriter Albert E. Brumley (“Turn Your Radio On”, “I’ll Fly Away”) to Ferlin Husky (“Wings Of A Dove”, which has the wooden but ebullient rhythm of many of Wagoner’s recordings) to 21st century hitmaker Joe Nichols, the Ozarks’ tradition of country music and comedy thrived long before Branson emerged as the “Hillbilly Vegas.”
In this Ozark Hall of Fame, Porter Wagoner looms above the rest. Throughout his career, Wagoner has mined Ozark subject matter: “Forty Miles From Popular Bluff”, “Big Wind”, “Indian Creek”. He’s used Ozark songwriters like Jimmy Driftwood (“Howdy, Neighbor Howdy”) and producer Bob Ferguson (“The Carroll County Accident”). And in his own songs, he’s memorialized characters from his Howell County youth: “Albert Erving”, “Wake Up, Jacob”, “Barlow Chapin”, “Katy Did”, “My Dad”.
Maybe most of all, signature Wagoner sides such as “Company’s Comin'”, “Misery Loves Company”, “Sorrow On The Rocks” and “A Good Time Was Had By All” sound like the Ozarks: An up-and-down beat meant for swinging your partner, and down-home as dirt.
In the fall of 1951, Wagoner moved to Springfield, Missouri — “the Queen City of the Ozarks,” the hottest spot on Route 66 between St. Louis and Tulsa — and settled into his new routine: Three quarter-hour programs each morning at KWTO, then a nighttime performance in some nearby Ozark village.
“We’d usually play at a schoolhouse or somewhere like that,” Wagoner remembers. “We had a dance we did there regular in Reed’s Springs on Wednesday nights — played square-dance music — then we’d be back up the next morning to do the radio shows. We were busy and doing pretty good, but not as good as I wanted.”
An ambitious young country singer might be expected at this point to pursue the siren call of Nashville. But in a sense Nashville had come to Wagoner.
KTWO’s Ely “Si” Siman, Porter’s Springfield mentor, was friendly with Steve Sholes, the head of RCA-Victor’s country division. Siman helped Chester Atkins land an RCA contract, not long after suggesting to the former KWTO regular that he might want to start calling himself “Chet.” Siman now helped place Wagoner there, too.
Wagoner’s first single, the optimistically titled “Setting The Woods On Fire”, was recorded in the fall of 1952 and, like most of Porter’s earliest sides, it was cut at the KWTO studios. Siman no doubt saw that it burned up the airwaves there, but it didn’t catch fire anywhere else. No wonder: Both its arrangement and its singer sound too much like Hank Williams — an especial liability just then as Williams, country’s brightest star, had just released a version of the song.
“I loved Hank Williams…I didn’t know any other way to sing it,” Porter told writer Dale Vinicur. “[I]t was quite a little while after that — a few years — before I realized…I need to sing these songs like I would sing them, not necessarily like Hank Williams or Roy Acuff or Ernest Tubb.”
Meanwhile, Wagoner’s next seven singles sold as unimpressively as his first, though not for cutting bad records. “Trinidad”, co-written by Wagoner and Siman, was a delightful if geographically incongruous country novelty: “You can go for a swim with a girl so trim — in sarongs of plaid!” Another Wagoner co-write, “Trademark”, was an honest-to-God hit — but for Opry star Carl Smith. The pining desolation of “My Bonfire” features Wagoner’s most supple and gripping early vocal, but it wasn’t even released. RCA didn’t renew his contract in 1954.
Fortunately, Wagoner had already cut “Company’s Comin'”, a song written by Springfield milk truck driver Johnny Mullin. The record kicks off with woodblocks that bring to mind bare feet slapping lickety-split across a wooden porch, then Porter delivers a breathless message: He can’t make out who it is just yet, the singer shouts to his Ozark kin, but everybody had better get presentable — Mama, wring some chickens’ necks; Grandpa, get yer fiddle down — visitors are headed up the mountain! “Company’s Comin'” has the drive of the Blue Grass Boys, the humor of Hank Williams, the mountain sincerity of Roy Acuff, and the energetic thump of an Ozark square dance — and it adds up to Porter Wagoner. The single climbed to #7 nationally.
Siman launched his most ambitious project yet, “The Ozark Jubilee”, just as “Company’s Comin'” was exiting the charts. Hosted by Red Foley — tempted from the Opry — the program joined ABC-TV’s Saturday night lineup in January 1955. Before Foley pulled the plug five seasons later, each episode was broadcast live from Springfield, beginning with the host swinging briskly through “Sugarfoot Rag”, the show’s theme. Then Foley introduced one of an imposing cast of regulars: Webb Pierce, Billy Walker, Wanda Jackson, Ozarker Leroy Van Dyke, 11-year-old Brenda Lee (another Siman protege), occasional guest host Eddy Arnold, and, for the first two seasons, Porter Wagoner.
At its peak, the Jubilee reached 25 million viewers a week — folks who otherwise would’ve tuned in the Opry on a Saturday night the way they’d always done. Even city slickers noticed, though sneeringly. As Time put it, KWTO and the Jubilee “gave listeners live, howling hillbillies” allowing Springfield to “lay claim to being the hillbilly capital of the world.”