A planned salute to Porter Wagoner on October 31 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville became a memorial with his passing on October 28 from advanced lung cancer. Across town, WSM disc jockey and country music historian Eddie Stubbs aired a five-hour tribute to the legendary singer.
At the Tennessee State Museum, the show started late. It had to: 45 minutes after the scheduled start time of 5:30, the crowd was still flowing in. The mayor of Nashville, Carl Dean, had a table reserved for him, as did former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. If that does not shout the impact Porter Wagoner had on American music (forget just country music), then nothing I could spew out in one or one thousand words can clarify his importance.
In addition to the politicians who came to pay their respects, Roland White of the Nashville Bluegrass Band was in attendance, as was the first featured “girl singer” on Wagoner’s show, Norma Jean. While some showed up in full Halloween regalia, the treat this evening was Porter Wagoner’s music and life, much sweeter than any candy.
Marty Stuart was scheduled to co-host the event with Jim Lauderdale; however, the tribute to Wagoner airing on WSM at the same time took him away from the festivities. Songwriter Jim Lauderdale handled hosting chores alone. Dressed not unlike Porter in a dark pink rhinestone suit, Lauderdale began the tribute with “Ole Slewfoot.” “That was my favorite bluegrass song for a long time,” Lauderdale said. “Porter was the first guy to have a fusion of bluegrass and country instrumentally.”
Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly explaines how the evening, originally planned to honor Wagoner on the strength of his 2007 Wagonmaster release. “Jim Lauderdale approached me and kept telling me, ‘You gotta honor Porter!’” Hilly explained. The decision to present Wagoner with the American Original Award was made before the tragic diagnosis earlier in October. Wagoner’s daughter, Debra, and two of his grandchildren were in attendance to receive the award. Debra presented it to her daughters, Alissa and Brittney, saying that she was passing on Wagoner’s music to the next generation. She also stated that her mother and Wagoner’s ex-wife, Ruth, died on Halloween in 2006.
By far the most emotional performance came from Mark Farris. His soulful rendition of “Green Green Grass of Home” had one of Wagoner’s granddaughters crying throughout the performance. Other performances included Chris Gaffney of the Hacienda Brothers singing “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” a song penned by Bill Anderson that was a major hit in Wagoner’s career and the title track of one of his albums, and Rodney Crowell, who sang “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” as well as his own composition about losing his parents.
Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris took the stage for three Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton duets, “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” “Just Someone I Used to Know,” and Wagoner’s own composition, “Burning the Midnight Oil.”
Before closing with “A Satisfied Mind,” Wagoner’s biggest hit, Lauderdale recounted his favorite remark around Porter: “Every time I was on the Opry and he hosted, I would always tell the audience, ‘I like classical music. I like Wagner. Porter Wagner.’ And I’d always hear him offstage with that ‘ha!’ of his.”
At WSM, Eddie Stubbs fielded phone calls from people such as Bud Wendell, the one-time head of Gaylord Entertainment. Wagoner was the official ambassador of Opryland during most of the theme park’s existence, something Wendell said Wagoner never officially auditioned for. “He was always at the park,” Wendell said. “He wanted to be there for the fans. For Porter, it was always all about the fans.”
Stubbs also played a number of interviews with Wagoner from his many visits to the WSM studios. One involved Wagoner’s recitations, a frequent and fan favorite part of his performances. “I learned from Red Foley,” Wagoner told Stubbs in 2000. “Red had a great voice for it. Hank Snow, too. But Red Foley said, ‘Keep it at about an eighth grade level. Don’t use any words that you don’t know the meaning too. And, if your audience it loud, lower your voice. They’ll hear you. Talk as if you’re talking to one person.” To show just how well Wagoner had mastered the genre, Stubbs played “The Dream,” a recitation from Wagonmaster dealing with a real dream Wagoner had while recovering from his near-fatal stomach aneurysm in 2006 that took him to Heaven to meet his old friends from the Opry who had passed away.
Stubbs, obviously emotional after hearing the song, said, “That’s powerful stuff.” He then told of his final meeting with Wagoner, in the hospital on October 25th. “He knew he had small-cell lung cancer,” Stubbs said, “the very aggressive kind. We talked for a long time, and he said that God appeared to him and said, ‘I’m a customer of yours every day.’ He spoke of the peace he had through Jesus Christ. I know he’s in a better place today.”
“Dad would be proud,” Wagoner’s daughter Debra said of the tributes.