When Porter Wagoner arose from selling rabbit pelts as a teenager to buy his first $8 National he was just another rural guitar slinger who quit school in the seventh grade.
Well, not quite - he was also known as Porter Rabbit.

But it was when he emulated peers by using radio DJ work in a butcher shop studio as a conduit to a music career he was blinded by the glitter of rhinestones.

Not in his West Plains launch pad KWPM but in nearby Springfield on KWPO where he forked out $350 on his Nudie Cohen suit.

It was a nifty peach-coloured number with wagon wheels on it.

He eventually owned 50 of them, paying $8,000 to $12,000 each, and was the beacon for the hillbilly deluxe brigade that included his latter day producer Marty Stuart.

Porter's suits weighed an average of 35 pounds each.

A weighty albatross of sorts for the "thin man from West Plains" whose passing came after dusk on a late autumn night.

A special feature on most of his suits was the word "Hi!" in foot-high letters on each side of the lining.

He would throw the jacket open when he saw somebody snapping his picture.

So it was no surprise that after a career boomerang, replete with death defying duel with the grim reaper at 78 from an abdominal aneurysm that the singer was tailored for his farewell after a short battle with lung cancer.

Wagoner died at the quaintly named Alive Hospice on October 28 - just 13 days after being admitted to another hospital after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

The octogenarian was honoured with the presence of two of his rhinestone suits when his life was celebrated at a funeral service at his home away from home for 50 years - the Grand Ole Opry.

Although Wagoner trod the boards at the Ryman - the mother church - in his prime he was finally admitted as a member after it moved to new digs in Opryland in 1974.

He celebrated his 50-year Opry reign in May so it was fitting his funeral service was also celebrated there.

Porter made his last live Opry appearance on September 29.

It was just three months earlier on June 7 that Wagoner spoke at length about his colourful career in an interview with Nu Country TV.

CLICK HERE for in the in-depth feature from the Diary on June 27.


Wagoner was born during the Great Depression on a farm where mules pulled the plough and tractors were beyond the family budget.

So much so that the singer, one of five children, trapped rabbits for their pelts and sang for his supper from an early age.

He spent hours pretending that the stump of a felled oak tree was the Opry stage and that he was introducing country stars.

After bad times forced the family to auction their farm, they moved to West Plains, where a local butcher hired Wagoner.

It was there he married his first wife Velma Johnson at 16 and they were divorced by the time he turned 17.

In 1946, he married Ruth Olive Williams; they separated in 1966 and divorced in 1986.

Their three children Richard, Denise and Debra survived him.

Wagoner died at 8.25 p m on October 28 just as Vince Gill, Mel Tillis and Ralph Emery were being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a mile and a half away.


Porter was belatedly inducted into the Hall of Fame five years ago and celebrated 50 years on the Grand Ole Opry in May with guests such as Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless and Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives.

At the time, Wagoner called Parton "one of my best friends today."

Dolly replaced fellow singer Norma Jean in 1967 as Porter's partner on his 21 year long syndicated TV show that began in 1960 and is now repeated on U.S. cable TV.

The Porter Wagoner Show was syndicated in 100 markets and reached 3.5 million viewers a week.

The duo enjoyed 18 hits from 13-duet vinyl albums on RCA that still have healthy sales on CD re-releases long after their acrimonious legal battle.

They split in 1974 and Wagoner sued her for $3 million in assets, but they settled out of court in 1980.

At a charity roast for Wagoner in 1995, Parton explained the breakup: "We split over creative differences. I was creative, and Porter was different."

She also visited him in the hospital and hospice as he battled cancer.

"I went over on Sunday afternoon and spent the last few hours with Porter and his family, so I was able to say goodbye," Parton said.

"I sang for him and prayed with him. It felt good that I had the opportunity to say goodbye properly. His family is very grateful to everyone for all their help."

Ironically, Stuart is now married to singer Connie Smith who competed with Parton in auditions for Norma Jean's role.

Wagoner appeared in Clint Eastwood movie Honkytonk Man during a stint on his Viva Label.

Although his 1993 biography A Satisfied Man was a big seller it never led to a movie.

That's despite an eclectic career that included producing soul singer Joe Simon and hosting James Brown on the Opry.


A vast galaxy of country stars, family and friends farewelled Wagoner in a memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry on Thursday November 1.

The presiding minister, Dr. Jerry Sutton of Two Rivers Baptist Church, recalled that Wagoner had become - worldwide - the face and the voice of the Opry.

Dr. Sutton said, Wagoner "was not a perfect man, but he was a great man."

The Opry House stage was adorned with nearly two-dozen floral displays and two of Wagoner's bright spangled and rhinestoned jackets.

The wooden casket at stage front was draped with white flowers.

Two messages on the back window of a pickup truck parked near the Opry House was a wry comment on the Wagoner's legacy.

One message read, "Heaven is a lil more sparkly - Porter rest well." The other? It read, "Impeach Bush."

"I wanted to sing something else, but I was afraid I couldn't get through it," confessed Parton who wrote her hit I Will Always Love You for Wagoner.

The singing actress led a cast of Opry members in singing Hank Williams' I Saw The Light in the memorial that was heavy on gospel music.

Three members of the Country Music Hall of Fame legend's Wagonmasters band - Danny Davis, Rick "LD" Money and Fred Newell - performed Rank Stranger.

Wagoner nearly died in 2006 from an aneurysm, and he renewed his faith while recovering.

Parton said that he sent her numerous gospel songs in the mail in the past year.

"I said, 'Porter, are you cramming? After all those years living like we did?' " she told the roughly 2,000 gathered at the Opry House.

"He said, 'Yeah, I guess I am crammin'."

Vince Gill, who sang Go Rest High On That Mountain with Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, credited Wagoner as a formative influence.

"The very first person that I ever saw sing country music in my life was Porter Wagoner," Gill said.

"When I turned on that TV and saw The Porter Wagoner Show, that was the first time I ever saw the music."

Wagoner's memorial service also included music from Marty Stuart, The Whites, The Carol Lee Singers and Duane Allen.

A video presentation offered scenes from Wagoner's years in music and commentary about his impact on country's sound and style.

Wagoner was a fixture at the Opry House since the building opened in 1974, and it was there that he served as a welcoming ambassador for country music and for the city of Nashville.

As the last notes of I Saw The Light faded, Parton quietly said Goodbye, Porter, and hugged Don Warden, the man who played steel guitar for Wagoner for many years.


Wagoner was scheduled to appear at Stuart's Sparkle & Twang exhibit at Tennessee State Museum the night before his funeral.

Instead Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, Mike Farris and other artists paid tribute to him.

"We've been so inspired by him for so long," said Emmylou, who sang three Porter songs with Buddy before inviting Jim up for their version of Satisfied Mind.

The event was an entrée to the Americana Music Conference and a chance for Porter's friends, family and fans to remember the Wagonmaster who died three nights earlier.

Two important Jeans in Wagoner's life - daughter Debra Jean and duet partner Pretty Miss Norma Jean - were on hand.

So were former Attorney General Janet Reno, roots-rocker and "Last of the Full-Grown Men" Webb Wilder and author and self-described "Queen of the Groupies" Pamela Des Barres.

Porter was originally slated to appear at the tribute, and to sing with Jim.

He missed Mike Farris' soulful take on Green, Green Grass of Home and Rodney Crowell's solo/acoustic run through I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name.

"My daddy had every intention of being here tonight," said Debra Jean, who accepted an American Original Award on behalf of her late father.

"My favourite memory of Porter will always be of him at the old Fan Fair at Nashville fairgrounds, where he loved meeting with his fans," writer Chet Flippo recalled.

"I will forever have an image of him sitting at a table in his booth, and - just as a fan starts to take a picture of him - he holds up a little sign reading, "I'm Naked From the Waist Down." What a joker. Funny - and yet."


top / back to diary