Porter Wagoner – The Thin Man
It did not have a happy outcome. Porter had kin in Peoria, Illinois, so the band headed there in an old DeSoto hearse they’d bought. After striking out with the small clubs in the area, Wagoner got the band booked for two nights at a swankier venue, only to discover there’d been a mistake.
“The morning of the day we were going to play, I went down and got a newspaper. There was a big half-page ad: ‘Appearing at the Top Hat night club, Porter Wagoner and his Blue Ridge Orchestra.’ I could not believe it. My heart just sank, man. I said to the boys, ‘There’s been a hell of a mistake here.’ Well, I went out to talk to the lady, and I said ‘Ma’am, we don’t have an orchestra.’ ‘Aw,’ she said, ‘honey, these people’ll love you. Music is music.’ Well, I tried to explain to her what the difference was, and there was just no way; she said, ‘They’ll love you, just come out and start at 8 o’clock.’
“We got out there about an hour before the show and tuned up in the parking lot. There wasn’t nothing but Cadillacs and Lincolns sitting there — I mean, buddy, big time. I walked inside and looked up, and they had tuxedos on and were just dressed to the hilt, and every table was full of people setting there eating. I was so scared, I didn’t know what the hell to do. I wanted to just run, to leave, but we didn’t have enough money to get out of town on. It was just stay and play, that was the only answer to it.
“Well, we go down to the orchestra pit, that’s where we had our microphone set up; no introduction or nothing. So I hit that run to start off ‘Watermelon On The Vine’ — we used that as our theme, just like Monroe — and them people raised up and started looking like they’d been invaded. They thought the damn Martians had come in. Well, we done one of those endings that just cut right off — and nothing. Not a sound. It just startled me, because I couldn’t say ‘thank you,’ ’cause they hadn’t done anything. So I said, ‘Well, uh, hey there, we’re going to do a little number for you now called ‘I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky’, and just tore into it.
“Well, the banjo player never looked up, you couldn’t see nothing but the top of his head, and you could tell everybody in the band was so embarrassed. So anyway, during ‘I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky’, I guess maybe a third of them just got up and gently walked out. We ended it, and still not a thing, just a rattle of a fork or a plate here and there. No applause, not a single bit of applause. We done about four songs, and there wasn’t but about one table left.
So the lady came out that owned the place, and she said, ‘Why, honey, they loved you, they’d already ate.’ She was trying to explain why they left, you know. She said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and pay you for tomorrow night, you don’t even need to come back.’
“I’ve often wished I had gotten her name, so that later, when I had some success, I could have sent her that $300 back. And that $300 got us out of there,” Porter concludes the story, before delivering an unexpected punchline. “And it was so damn cold, we stopped and bought a coal oil lantern for a heater, because that old hearse we had didn’t even have a heater in it, you know. It’s used for carrying dead people, and you don’t need much heat for them.”
Back in West Plains, Wagoner went back to more ordinary work, but not for long. By 1950 he’d gotten his first radio show, on local station KWPM, and cut a couple of sides that were getting some local radio and jukebox play. Not surprisingly, he’d decided that, much as he loved bluegrass, something more popular was advisable. He recorded songs such as “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, a big hit for Red Foley, and a Hank Williams smash, “Lovesick Blues”. In 1951, he was heard by the program director at Springfield’s KWTO and hired by the station shortly thereafter. He moved to the city to begin his new job, appearing thrice daily: two 30-minute shows of his own, at 5:30 and 7:30 a.m., and as part of an hour-long variety show, “The Farm And Home Hour”, at 11:30 a.m.
“When I first went there,” he recalls, “they were going to pay me $35 a week. I didn’t get any mail the first three days, and it really bothered me, man. The third night I didn’t get no sleep. I was really concerned, because I’d told everybody at home, ‘You really need to write to me,’ because that’s the way they judged your popularity, whether people liked you or not. And we had this little mailbox as you’d come in and go by the secretary’s desk, and the first three mornings, there wasn’t a thing in my box, man.
“I believe it was the fourth day, when I came in the secretary was sitting there, and she said, ‘Porter, when are you going to pick up your mail?’ I said, ‘Well, as soon as I get some, I guess.’ And she said, ‘Honey, your mail’s down in the basement, there’s six boxes full down there.’ There were thousands of letters — six cardboard boxes that tall [he gestures knee-high], all just packed with letters and cards and such. I just couldn’t believe it. I set down and cried; that’s probably the most I cried in my whole career. It just touched me so deeply, and it just — well, it changed my whole life, my whole confidence level and everything, it just went…it changed my whole internal life around.
“I stayed there until it was time for me to go on the 11:30 show, and I was almost late. I went up, and I had to go by the boss’s office to where the studio was — Ralph Foster was the guy that owned the radio station — and he seen me going by there, and he hollered, ‘Hey, come here, I want to talk to you.’
“Well, I thought — well, man, I looked awful, my eyes were all red because I’d been down there crying for an hour. And he said, ‘I see you’ve been down there and seen your mail.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sure did, that’s just unbelievable almost.’ He said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever got that much mail here, nobody ever.’ And he said, ‘I’ve decided we’re going to double that salary of yours.’ Well, man, I started seeing Cadillacs and diamond rings and all that good stuff then.”