The Country Stalwart Who Created Fresh Impetus In The 1970s
One of country music’s legendary performers, Porter Wagoner, makes his UK debut at the forthcoming Silk Cut Festival. His reputation is assured, having first burst into the Stateside country charts in the mid-1950s, he later brought Dolly Parton into the limelight. Alan Cackett comes up with the facts.
Porter Wagoner is pure country. Throughout a career that has spanned more than 30 years, he has stood his ground defiantly. For him there has never been any thought of a compromise. Though he has the talent, and at one time the physical appeal, to warrant a flirtation with what is now called ‘crossover country,’ he has remained true to what he has always believed in, the reality, honesty and simplicity of pure country music.
Now in his early fifties, Porter’s career can neatly be divided into three separate decades. Firstly there was the 1950s, a period of great hardship as he struggled against all odds to gain recognition in the music business. It was the area of rock’n’roll, and Porter could have followed so many of the other country stars and added rock songs to his repertoire. He didn’t, and his search for stardom was made that much harder.
By the early 1960s, he had made the breakthrough. He scored his only number one country hit in 1962 with Misery Loves Company, and with his own syndicated television show he became a top-name act with further big hits like Green Green Grass Of Home, The Cold Hard Facts Of Life and The Carroll Country Accident.
But it was to be the 1970s that would prove to be the most interesting and varied decade of the Porter Wagoner career. By 1970 he was firmly established as one of Nashville’s best-known country artists. His roadshow, featuring his own band, The Wagonmasters, plus Dolly Parton, was an all-round entertainment package that encompassed good country music, comedy and glamour. It was about the best country show of the time, and it was due to Porter, a perfectionist who was also a hard taskmaster.
His first hit of the decade was the aptly titled When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, a sad country ballad from the pen of Curly Putman. It was followed by the album YOU GOTTA HAVE A LICENSE, which gave little indication of the changes that were about to take place in Porter Wagoner’s career. Some up-tempo numbers, a narration or two, and some simple rural tales that constituted a good country album—Porter Wagoner style.
It was Dolly Parton, Porter’s protege who caused the singer to re-evaluate his career. At the outset of his career he had written songs both for himself and other country artists like Carl Smith and Little Jimmy Dickens. He believed, mistakenly, that those early songs were not very good, and so he drifted away from writing. Dolly, a well-established writer before she started working with Porter in 1967, urged him to write again. To begin with, Porter was reluctant, but when the pair formed their own publishing company, Porter tried his hand at writing again.
His first ‘new’ song to appear on record was The Silent Kind, a short but moving narration included on the album SKID ROW JOE—DOWN IN THE ALLEY. It was a collection of tales about life’s losers, those who turn to the bottle and end up helpless alcoholics. Though Porter has never been down on skid row or suffered from a drinking problem, he sings about The Town Drunk, When I Drink My Wine and The Alley as if he has lived through it.
The autumn of 1971 saw the release of the album PORTER WAGONER SINGS HIS OWN, a collection of self-written songs. Porter’s writing was noteworthy in that he established himself as a creditable songwriter in his own right. Indeed. Porter showed with this collection that he’s a talented lyricist. A man who stirs up basic emotions, he handles lost love and loneliness expertly in Watching and The Late Love Of Mine, turns his hand to the hippy movement and the mistake of rash judgements in the tale of Brother Harold Lee, and adds a fine piece of story-telling in Be A Little Quieter, a song with a sting, and a top ten hit for him in 1971.
As well as writing by himself, sometimes he would team up with Dolly Parton, especially on the songs they used for their successful duet recordings. But it was his solo work that was most interesting. His next album, WHAT AIN’T TO BE, JUST MIGHT HAPPEN, has Porter investigating some unusual situations. On several of the song he dabbled with the problems of madness in a convincing and compelling way. THE RUBBER ROOM gives the impression that Porter had been there, and If I Lose My Mind tells of a man who has suffered at the hands of a cheating woman.
The title song of the album, an optimistic, mid-tempo song, gave him another top ten hit. The next album, BALLADS OF LOVE, was even more personal, yet encompassed feelings common to us all. Although romantic love is passionate, fatherly love is tender and so were the ballads on this album, tender and very real. The album was dedicated to his daughter, Denise Mayree, a blonde-haired beauty pictured on the front cover.
The instrumentation, simple and quite often stark, consisted for the most part of Porter and acoustic guitar, with occasional contribution from Hargus Robbins (keyboard), Johnny Gimble (fiddle), Pete Drake (steel) and the guitars of Bobby Thompson, Dave Kirby and Bobby Dyson. Artistically a great album, but commercially it was bound to be a loser.
Though Dolly Parton has recorded the odd Porter Wagoner song on her albums, the album MY FAVOURITE SONGWRITER, PORTER WAGONER helped to bring credibility to Porter’s writing. Basically his songs were written for himself, and were unsuitable for other artists, but Dolly adapted the songs to her own style with sensitivity and care.
Porter’s songwriting very much reflected the man. He was a deep person who loved the simple things of life. He saw other people’s problems and was able to write about them clearly and concisely. His songs paint vivid pictures of reality. Throughout this period he progressed steadily in his own way, seemingly unaffected by events in the mainstream of country music, and yet still capable of continued experimentation.
He continued to chalk up his hits like Lightening The Load, Tore Down and the story of two quite different sisters in Katy Did. He recorded an album to THE FARMER, which wasn't as successful as it should have been, though it did produce one of his best ever singles, WAKE UP JACOB. Once again he showed his deep understanding of people and their feelings with some sensitive lyrics, but Porter’s weakness, the inability to come up with fresh and original melodies, once again marred a good album.
Most times his simple narrative pieces overcome the lack of melody, but it does often mean that his albums have songs like Tennessee Sunshine (recorded by Gene Watson), When Lea Jane Sang, Highway Headin’ South and Nothing Between show that his talent as a songwriter is real.
By the mid-1970s Porter was becoming so involved with his business interests, mainly concerned with publishing, songwriting and producing, that his own career was beginning to suffer. He had taken over production of Dolly Parton’s records from Bob Ferguson, and was responsible for Dolly’s initial crossover hits like Love Is A Butterfly, Jolene and The Bargain Store.
Towards the end of 1975 Dolly felt that Porter was being too restrictive over her career, and they parted ways in a stormy fashion. A legal wrangle involving millions of dollars ensued over music publishing rights and the production deal, and it wasn’t until the end of 1979 that this was all settled. Porter was deeply hurt by Dolly’s actions and his own career plummeted to the depths. He virtually stopped recording for two years, though he did continue with his own recording complex, Fireside Studio.
He returned to the studios in the autumn of 1977 and recorded the album PORTER, which carefully blended new versions of some of his old hits plus some excellent new material like Sonny Throckmorton’s I Haven’t Learned A Thing, featuring a touching narration from Merle Haggard, and The Arizona Whiz, a fine tale of an old country singer, performed in a typical Wagoner style.
He enjoyed minor hits with I Haven’t Learned A Thing and Mountain Music, the latter a Dolly Parton song. More singles followed, including new modern arrangements of Ole Slew Foot and I’m Gonna Feed ‘Em Now. Both were included on his last album for RCA, PORTER WAGONER TODAY. Released in mid-1979, this time the basic Porter Wagoner sound was updated with the use of synthesiser and clarinet. It proved to be an interesting project, though I feel that Porter could have used more new material instead of using songs from his past.
He did find new material for singles like I Want To Walk You Home, Everything I’ve Always Wanted, the self-penned Hold On Tight, and Is It Only ‘Cause You’re Lonely. Though these recordings made the charts, they were not the big hits expected of a major artist, and in 1981 his contract with RCA wasn’t renewed.
By this time he had re-formed his band, The Wagonmasters, and has now set out to re-establish himself on the country scene. Beginning on the live circuit, he hopes to be back in the studio soon and making hit records once more. He still remains true to his creed of only singing and performing good, pure country music. Unfortunately, not too many of Porter’s albums are available in Britain, though the compilation album, THE HITS OF PORTER WAGONER, compiled by Tony Byworth, is well worth seeking out, as it contains most of the single hits from the period of 1971 to 1975.
A couple more of his albums are available as imports, and for the rest you must look in the bargain bins. To coincide with his Wembley debut, RCA have a special compilation album planned, containing several of his well-known hits, alongside lesser-known gems like the beautiful When Lea Jane Sang, a tribute to one of Nashville’s best-known session singers.
Recent Album Discography
Gotta Have A Licence – RCA LSP 4286 (US release)
Skid Row Joe – RCA LSA 3038
Sings His Own – RCA LSA 3058
The Best Of (with Dolly Parton) – RCA LSA 3046
What Ain't To Be – RCA LSA 3130
Highway Headin’ South – RCA LSA 3207
Hits Of – RCA PL 42182
Hits Of (with Dolly Parton) – RCA PL 42192
Today – RCA AHL1 3210
Porter & Dolly (with Dolly Parton) – RCA PL 13700
20 Of The Best – RCA INTS 5197