Monday, October 29, 2007

The Wagonmaster Has Left the Building

For 50 years, Porter Wagoner starred on the Grand Ole Opry, wearing otherworldly suits and singing about salt-of-the-earth concerns.

The Country Music Hall of Famer died at age 80 tonight, as dignitaries and stars gathered at the Country Music Hall of Fame to induct its three newest members. Mr. Wagoner was admitted to the hospital on Monday, Oct. 15 and had been under doctors’ care since then. Mr. Wagoner was released to hospice care on Friday, days after the announcement of a lung cancer diagnosis.

Known as “The Thin Man From West Plains,” Mr. Wagoner’s contributions to country music are manifold and consequential. Marty Stuart, who produced this year’s much-heralded comeback album Wagonmaster, calls him “an American master and a cornerstone of our music.”

A hit-maker for more than a quarter-century, he was a Country Music Hall of Famer and a three-time Grammy winner whose best-loved singles included “A Satisfied Mind,” “Misery Loves Company” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.”

His syndicated television show allowed him to serve as an ambassador for the genre, and it proved invaluable in spreading the fame of Wagoner’s hand-picked “girl singer,” Dolly Parton, with whom he had hit duets including “Just Someone I Used To Know” and “Making Plans."

In the studio, he was an innovator who tweaked traditional country arrangements and found fresh sounds in a genre that often tugs against change.

He was among the pioneers of the country “concept album,” releasing song-sets such as “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and “The Cold, Hard Facts of Life” that offered unified themes. As a performer and producer, he sought the beauty of harmony and the reality of dissonance.

He was a tenacious song-scavenger, listening to outside material even during down-time at the Opry in this new millennium, hoping to find hit songs and new ideas. And in the wake of Minnie Pearl’s 1996 death, Mr. Wagoner and Jimmy Dickens became the public faces of the Grand Ole Opry.

Oh, yes, and there were the suits. Mr. Wagoner wasn’t the first to wear a rhinestone suit on the Opry — Dickens has that designation — but he was certainly a famed and ardent devotee of the power of garb.

Backstage in his dressing room, the suits were so heavy that they were hard to hoist with one hand. They must have been hot, and burdensome to wear. But under the lights, on the grand stage, they sparkled and dazzled. Opry patrons would always applaud at the first sight of Wagoner, cheering him as a vision and as a visionary as he welcomed them to the show, professed his pleasure to be there and told a joke or two.

Clothes didn’t make the man, but they accentuated him, and Mr. Wagoner’s stage outfits could be read like rhinestone novels, with glittering wagon wheels and other symbols that told stories of the songs and life of this farmer’s son from Missouri.

Read the entire story of this great entertainer in the Tennessean.
Staff Writer
Published: Monday, 10/29/07

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