Porter Wagoner (1927-2007) was one of country music's great, unreconstructed hicks. Over five decades in show business, he never faltered in the pursuit of the sentimental, the heartfelt or the outright cornball. A prolific songwriter and a fine interpreter of other's work, Wagoner was a keen champion of old-fashioned heartsongs and goofy novelty songs, as well as mordant tunes with a kitschy, gothic darkness. In the 1960s, Wagoner hosted his own TV show and brought into the public eye two of the greatest female performers in country music, Norma Jean, who was a member of the Porter Wagoner Show from 1964 to 1967, and Dolly Parton, who replaced Norma Jean as the "girl singer" in the Wagoner entourage, but swiftly established herself as a major composer and performer in her own right. Porter's career rode high in the '50s, '60s and early '70s, but faltered under the disco-era onslaught of countrypolitan crooning. Outside of a couple of "best-of" overviews and an exhaustive import box set or two, Wagoner's legacy has fared poorly in the CD age: he's too hillbilly and old-fashioned for modern-day Nashville to care much about, and seen as too slick and showbiz by the whippersnappers in the alt.country crowd. Too bad for them, but for those of us still willing to go crate-digging and find those beat-up old LPs, Porter's got a lot to offer!
Here's a quick look at Porter Wagoner's discography... This page will actually take a while for me to flesh out, as I go through my old LPs and pick some new ones up... So bear with me!
Porter Wagoner "The Essential" (RCA Nashville, 1997)
Wahoo! Nashville has GOT to start putting out more reissues that are as good as this one! Wagoner was the last of the unreformable hicks, gloriously corny, yet country to the bone. This disc covers a lot of his best material, including the absurdly maudlin recitations such as "Skid Row Joe" and "What Would You Do If Jesus Came To Your House?" People eat those novelty tracks up with a spoon, but you should also check out his awesome weepers, such as "I'll Go Down Swinging" and "Satisfied Mind." When Wagoner sang it, he meant it. And that's nothing to laugh at! One of the best CDs in this series -- highly recommended.
Porter Wagoner "The Thin Man From The Western Plains" (Bear Family, 1993)
Four CDs worth of prime Porter material from the 1950s and '60s, complete with Bear Family's trademark fine sound quality and scholarly liner notes. If you really want to get into the Wagoner mystique, this is the best collection on the market today. Pure hillbilly gold!
Porter Wagoner "Greatest Songs" (Curb, 1994)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "The Essential" (RCA Nashville, 1997)
Dolly Parton started off her career as the "girl singer" on the Porter Wagoner show, replacing the equally hickalicious Norma Jean. Porter certainly helped Dolly find her voice as a traditonally-oriented artist in a countrypolitan town. The duets they recorded when they were still musical partners are mostly pretty good, a lot better than you might think... and the song selection on this collection (culled from zillions of duet albums they put out together) is great. Well worth checking out, especially since it isn't likely to stay in print forever.
Porter Wagoner "RCA Country Legends" (RCA Nashville, 2002)
Porter Wagoner "A Rare Slice Of Country" (Jasmine, 2004)
Porter Wagoner "Dig That Crazy Moon" (BACM, 2005)
A high-quality CD-R of rare early stuff, with great classics and novelty songs galore, all curated by the folks at the British Archive Of Country Music...
Porter Wagoner "Misery Loves Company" (Masked Weasel, 2005)
Although he was really a superior writer and singer of sentimental country love songs, Porter Wagoner also built up an image as a lovable hillbilly nut, and many of his albums were graced by kooky novelty songs of the highest order. And here we have some of the best, gathered together on one disc, with gems such as "Sorrow On The Rocks," "Skid Row Joe," and his magnificent rendition of the gospel recitation, "What Would You Do If Jesus Came To Your House..." It's a great introduction to Wagoner's work; pity there isn't more of his stuff still in print! If you like what you hear on this disc (and you should!) then it's definitely worth your time to track down all the other stuff as well!
Porter Wagoner "The Rubber Room" (Omni, 2006)
Porter Wagoner "Out Of The Silence Came A Song: The Somber Sound Of Porter Wagoner" (Sony-BMG, 2007)
Porter Wagoner "Cold Hard Facts Of Life/Soul Of A Convict" (Omni, 2008)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Duets" (RCA-Europe, 2008)
Porter Wagoner "Satisfied Mind" (RCA, 1956)*
Porter Wagoner "Slice Of Life" (RCA, 1962)*
Porter Wagoner & Skeeter Davis "Sing Duets" (RCA, 1962) (LP)
An odd and unfortunate misfire. Along with Porter Wagoner, Skeeter Davis had to be one of the biggest unreconstructed hicks running loose in Nashville at the time, so you'd think hearing the two of them together would be a thing of wonder. Unfortunately, the musical backing on this album is both manic and monotonous, defined by a bouncing back beat and a remote-control string section that doesn't vary much from song to song. They cover some great tunes, but not much of it sinks in very deep. The exceptions -- strangely enough -- come at the end of the album, where heartsongs like "We Could" and "My Greatest Weakness" give the singers a chance to stretch their elbows a little and work their magic.
Porter Wagoner/Various Artists "The Porter Wagoner Show" (RCA) (LP)
One of those great fake-live albums featuring not only Norma Jean, but the rest of Porter's cast. She sings three solo tunes and one really swell duet ("I'll Take A Chance On Loving You") with Porter... a limited role, but all of her stuff is pretty solid. Probably the most interesting aspect of this album is the comedy schtick by bassist Curly Harris... one of those Vaudeville throwbacks that still remarkably persisted in country music into the '60s. Interesting little slice of old-time showmanship.
Porter Wagoner "Y'All Come" (RCA, 1963)
Porter Wagoner "A Satisfied Mind" (RCA-Camden, 1963)
Porter Wagoner/Various Artists "In Person - Recorded Live" (RCA, 1964)
One of the wonderfully corny, abjectly rootsy "live" albums that the Porter Wagoner road show put out in the mid-'60s. In this pre-Dolly lineup, pretty miss Norma Jean sings on a couple of tracks, and as usual kind of steals the show... She was so good!
Porter Wagoner "The Blue Grass Story" (RCA, 1964)*
Porter Wagoner "The Thin Man From The Western Plains" (RCA, 1965)*
Porter Wagoner With The Blackwood Brothers "Grand Old Gospel" (RCA, 1965)
Porter Wagoner "Old Log Cabin For Sale" (RCA-Camden, 1965)*
Porter Wagoner "On The Road: The Porter Wagoner Show" (RCA, 1965) (LP)
A fun, goofy album featuring Porter's whole crew, running through their routines... Norma Jean was well-established as a solo artist by the time this one came out, so her contributions are mainly stuff from her own albums, along with a nice duet with Porter ("A Violet And A Rose"). More of the same goofy, lovable, latter-day hick roadshow stuff from Porter and his crew. This purports to have been recorded live at the Louisiana Hayride, but the vocals sound awfully smooth. Either way, this is a nice record.
Porter Wagoner "The Best Of Porter Wagoner" (RCA, 1966)
This first best of is pretty darn swell, and may be enough for the casual fan... But chances are once you pick this up and give it a good listen, you'll be hooked and have to go looking for more...!
Porter Wagoner "Confessions Of A Broken Man" (RCA, 1966)*
Porter Wagoner "Soul Of A Convict" (RCA, 1966)
Porter Wagoner "Your Old Love Letters" (RCA-Camden, 1966)
Porter Wagoner "I'm Day Dreamin' Tonight" (RCA-Camden, 1967)*
Porter Wagoner "Cold Hard Facts Of Life" (RCA, 1967)
Porter Wagoner With The Blackwood Brothers "More Grand Gospel" (RCA, 1967)
Pretty nice... if ya go for the whole Jesus thing. Sometimes Porter's hillbilly charm gets lost amid the solid, barbershopping style of these pioneering Southern Gospel idols, but he generally manages to make his presence known -- a corny recitation here, a tasty pedal steel there -- and the Blackwoods do grow on you after a while. Of course, we'll just have to leave aside the fact that there are five of them pictured on the cover alongside Porter, and the group is supposed to be a quartet... Other than that, this is a mighty fine country gospel album.
Porter Wagoner "The Green Green Grass Of Home" (RCA, 1968)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Just Between You And Me" (RCA, 1968)*
Porter Wagoner "The Bottom Of The Bottle" (RCA, 1968)*
Porter Wagoner With The Blackwood Brothers "In Gospel Country" (RCA, 1969)*
Porter Wagoner "Country Feeling" (RCA-Camden, 1969)
Porter Wagoner "The Carroll County Accident" (RCA, 1969)
Porter Wagoner "Me And My Boys" (RCA, 1969)*
Porter shares the spotlight with his backup band,
Porter Wagoner "Howdy, Neighbor, Howdy" (RCA-Camden, 1970)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Always, Always" (RCA, 1969)
Porter Wagoner "Ya Gotta Have A License" (RCA, 1970)*
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Porter Wayne And Dolly Rebecca" (RCA, 1970)
Porter Wagoner "The Best Of Porter Wagoner, v.2" (RCA, 1970)
Porter Wagoner "Skid Row Joe/Down In The Alley" (RCA, 1970)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Once More" (RCA, 1970)
Porter Wagoner "Country" (RCA-Camden, 1971)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Two Of A Kind" (RCA, 1971)
Porter Wagoner "Simple As I Am" (RCA, 1971)*
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "The Best Of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton" (RCA, 1971)
Porter Wagoner "Porter Wagoner Sings His Own" (RCA, 1971)*
Porter Wagoner "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" (RCA-Camden, 1971)
Porter Wagoner "The Silent Kind" (RCA-Camden, 1971)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "The Right Combination: Burning The Midnight Oil" (RCA, 1972)
Porter Wagoner "What Ain't To Be Just Might Happen" (RCA, 1971)*
Porter Wagoner "Ballads Of Love" (RCA, 1971)*
On the cover, Wagoner is bedazzled by visions of a crosseyed blonde beauty (not Dolly!), wearing various cute get-ups. The misty, far-away look in his eyes tells ya this is L-U-V, love...!!
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Together Always" (RCA, 1972)
Porter Wagoner "Experience" (RCA, 1972)*
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "We Found It" (RCA, 1973)
Porter Wagoner "I'll Keep On Loving You" (RCA, 1973)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Love And Music" (RCA, 1973)*
Porter Wagoner "The Farmer" (RCA, 1973)*
Porter Wagoner "Tore Down" (RCA, 1974)*
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Porter 'N' Dolly" (RCA, 1974)*
Porter Wagoner "Highway Headin' South" (RCA, 1974)*
Porter Wagoner "Sing Some Love Songs" (RCA, 1975)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Say Forever You'll Be Mine" (RCA, 1975)
Porter Wagoner "Porter" (RCA, 1977)
Porter Wagoner "Today" (RCA, 1979)
Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton "Porter & Dolly" (RCA, 1980)
Porter Wagoner "Viva!" (Warner, 1982) (LP)
Porter Wagoner "When I Sing For Him" (Murray Hill, 1982) (LP)
A gospel album...
Porter Wagoner "Porter Wagoner" (MCA-Dot, 1986) (LP)
Porter Wagoner "The Best I've Ever Been" (Shell Point, 1986)
Porter Wagoner "Unplugged" (Shell Point, 2002)
God bless Porter Wagoner. He hasn't changed his basic hillbilly orientation during over 45 years in the upper ranks of the country music pantheon, and it looks like he never will. This simple, unpretentious collection of songs sounds just like his old stuff from the early '70s, calculated but heartfelt, corny but cool. As the title implies, the arrangements are pretty down to earth, but really not that much different than any of his classic work. Porter's getting on in years, but still has a great voice, not nearly as creaky or fragile as any number of his contemporaries. The guy's still got it, and this album ranks right up there with anything he's ever done. By the way, Willie Nelson guests on a couple of tunes, and these two veterans sound pretty simpatico. Worth checking out!
Porter Wagoner & Pam Gadd "Something To Brag About" (Gusto, 2004)
Porter's always had a soft spot for singing duets with purty gals -- first there was Norma Jean, then Dolly, and later Pam Gadd, of the band Wild Rose. To be honest, Porter sounds pretty washed-up here, but Gadd puts in a good performance. Good songs, but you can easily find better records by both of these artists singing solo, and they never really click as duet partners. You could pass on this one, unless you're really a super-duper dedicated fan.
Pam Gadd & Porter Wagoner "22 Country And Gospel Duets" (Tee Vee, 2007)
Porter Wagoner "The Wagonmaster" (Anti/Epitaph, 2007)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
October 28, 2007: I was greatly saddened to hear that Porter Wagoner had passed away after being admitted to a hospice in Nashville. His passing was made more poignant by his having recorded such a fine final album before going up to join that heavenly choir he kept singing about when he was in a gospel mood. Porter was in top form here, as corny and as heartfelt as ever, and with a strong, sympathetic backing from Marty Stuart and his band. There are beautiful ballads, goofball novelty songs, over-the-top gloom'n'doom epics (like "The Agony Of Waiting"), lively instrumentals and between-song patter that recall the stage show that he'd performed for decades, on TV, at the Opry and on the road. There's even a lost gem written by Johnny Cash, "Committed To Parkview," a song about being in an asylum that fits in handily next to Porter's wacky classic, "The Rubber Room." In short, this album is archetypal Porter Wagoner, a delicious mix of the heartfelt and the maudlin, the serious and the silly. Porter's voice was expressive and strong -- he made another great record, just like the others he'd made over the years, and although he didn't cater to the rock'n'roll crowd the same way as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, there's still plenty here for the young'uns to latch onto, if they've got a hankering to hear real some country music. Rest in peace, Porter: we'll all be down here listening to your stuff for a long time to come.
Dolly Parton "My Favorite Songwriter: Porter Wagoner" (RCA, 1972)*
Porter Wagoner "The Best Of Porter Wagoner" (DVD) (K-Tel, 2004)
Hick Music Index