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Porter Wagoner, 80; star of Grand Ole Opry

October 29, 2007|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Porter Wagoner, the blond pompadoured, rhinestone-encrusted personification of Nashville tradition, host of the longest-running country-music variety show in TV history and mentor to Dolly Parton, died Sunday night of lung cancer. He was 80.

Wagoner died at a hospice in Nashville, according to an announcement on the Grand Ole Opry's website.

Parton recently went to a Nashville hospital to visit the man who inspired her best-known song, "I Will Always Love You," after their acrimonious career split in the mid-1970s.

She described him then as very weak, but said Wagoner "had his wits and joked around," and she vowed she would sing with him again at the Grand Ole Opry when he was ready. Wagoner was released from the hospital Friday and transferred to hospice care.

A little more than a year ago, Wagoner had been seriously ill after suffering an intestinal aneurysm, but defied a dire medical prognosis and recovered sufficiently to mount a career comeback that led to appearances last summer on "The Late Show With David Letterman" and an opening slot at Madison Square Garden with upstart rock band the White Stripes, whose members are ardent Wagoner fans.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Wagoner obituary: An obituary of country music star Porter Wagoner in Monday's California section misspelled the name of his first female duet partner on his long-running television show. It was Norma Jean, not Norman Jean.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Porter Wagoner: The obituary of country singer Porter Wagoner in Monday's California section referred to his 1955 hit "A Satisfied Mind" as a song that he wrote and recorded. It was written by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes.

Country singer and songwriter Marty Stuart, a generation younger than Wagoner, coaxed his childhood idol into a recording studio last winter to record a new album, "The Wagonmaster." The recording brought Wagoner renewed attention, some of the best reviews of his career and created a new cachet among fans who are yet another generation younger than Stuart. The album also is expected to garner Wagoner at least one Grammy Award nomination from members of an industry that has long favored rewarding veterans who successfully reignite their careers.

When Wagoner performed in Los Angeles in June in conjunction with the album's release, it wasn't at an old-line country-music club, but at the trendy Safari Sam's nightclub on the edge of Silver Lake and Hollywood. Performing in one of his signature jewel-laden western suits and dazzling silver cowboy boots, he was cheered by fans young enough to be his grandchildren -- and called it one of the biggest thrills of his life.

This year he also celebrated his 50th year as a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast. He returned to the country-music institution in March after recuperating from the aneurysm and resumed his role as one of the organization's most recognizable stars.

Over a period of nearly 40 years, Wagoner placed 81 songs on the country-music chart, 19 of those duets with Parton, who joined his show in 1967 as a replacement for his first female co-star, Norman Jean. Wagoner and Parton were named country group and country duo of the year in 1970 and 1971 by the Country Music Assn.

Wagoner's music often told dark tales of desperate people in stark terms that placed him in the gothic tradition of country music. This was best exemplified in his 1971 recording "The Rubber Room," about a man who has been driven insane by an unfaithful lover. "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," a 1967 hit, recounted the tale of a husband returning home early from a business trip to find his wife in the arms of another man. Without directly describing the outcome, the song ends with the husband sitting in his cell on death row, asking himself, "Who taught who the cold hard facts of life?"

Porter Wagoner was born Aug. 12, 1927, in West Plains, Mo. He grew up helping out on the family farm, but when he wasn't busy with farm chores he would spend hours standing on the trunk of a felled oak tree pretending he was host of the Grand Ole Opry, which he listened to religiously on the radio.

Once a neighboring farmer stumbled on the young man mimicking his act and asked what he was doing. When Wagoner told him of his dream to be an Opry star one day, the farmer told him, "You're as close to the Grand Ole Opry as you'll ever get. You'll be looking these mules in the rear end when you're 65."

Recalling that incident backstage at the Opry earlier this year, Wagoner, who was surrounded in his kingly dressing room by photos showing him with hundreds of celebrity well-wishers who had joined him on the show over the years, just smiled and said with a gentle laugh, "I wish I could see him now."

He got his first guitar from his older brother, Glenn, whose death before age 20 from a heart ailment hit Wagoner hard. He became determined to carry on his brother's love for music. Working at a department store in West Plains, Wagoner was hired by the owner to sing on a radio show he sponsored.

His initial attempts at a recording career were less than stellar, as Wagoner simply attempted to copy the sound of his idol, Hank Williams. But he quickly realized that his only chance at a meaningful life in music was to be himself.

He wrote and recorded "A Satisfied Mind," a song that discounts the rewards of the material world in favor of the facets of life that lead to peace of mind. It took him to the top of the country chart in 1955 for the first time and remained his biggest hit.

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