Hey, Buddy; Come on In
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
When Porter Wagoner died this past Sunday night at 8:25 p.m., after a shockingly quick decline in his battle with lung cancer, a brilliantly burning star went out of the constellation of country music. (I know Robert Goulet died the very next day, ironically, while waiting for a lung transplant, but while I saw him perform in Camelot and while he does merit a column of his own, I want to write about Wagoner’s contributions to country music and some books about country music). I can recall sitting in front of our little black and white television set on Saturday nights, thrilled when Porter brought the world of country music into our living rooms. In his early shows, he introduced me to folks like Roy Acuff, Skeeter Davis, and his first singing partner, Norma Jean. I used to sing along with the show’s theme song, “Company Comin’,” and would play it on my guitar through the week, pretending to host my own show of flashy country singers.
Porter Wagoner changed the face of country music as we know it many ways. He paved the way for many female singers, as he introduced his women duet partners like Norma Jean and Dolly Parton, and even “discovered” many singers like Skeeter Davis. In fact, most of his obituaries made a great deal of his six-year partnership with Dolly Parton. While Porter can be credited with introducing Dolly to the world of country music and her farewell song to him, “I Will Always Love You,” expresses her admiration for him, in spite of some well-publicized squabbles many observers always thought that Porter owed the birth of his career to her. In his inimitable and wickedly humorous fashion, though, he always reminded us when pundits would say that Porter sang with Dolly: “No, she sang with me.”
More than any other country singer and musician, however, Porter Wagoner changed the face of country music by entertaining us and not just singing to us. Who can forget his flashy Nudie suits named after their designer Nudie Cohen stitched with the word “Hi” in the interior? Every time the camera focused on him, he would flash open his coat so that inside lapel did his talking. His rhinestone-encrusted suits made him the Liberace of country music, and he took the position of entertaining seriously. Porter Wagoner was always out to make people smile and feel that they had been entertained. He was a staple of the weekly Grand Ole Opry shows at the Ryman and at the new Opry House out at the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. When the Opryland Theme Park was still running, you could always count on seeing Porter welcoming you to a show there.
I never met Porter Wagoner, but I did get to see him several times at the Opry. His and Little Jimmie Dickens’—they were great friends and fishing buddies—segments of the show were the most entertaining. He always greeted the singers on his portion of the show with his booming “Hey, Buddy,” and he was always ready to play a practical joke on one of the singers or one of the WSM DJs who announce the show live every week.
In 2002, Porter Wagoner developed a stomach aneurysm and was hospitalized for several weeks. He made his comeback and continued to entertain us right up until the end. Dolly Parton told an amusing story at his funeral on Thursday. She said that after his sickness with his aneurysm, he started sending her gospel songs that he wanted her to sing. She told him, “Porter, I think you might be crammin’.” (She was referring to cramming for his final exam with God.) He thought about this for a few moments and told her that he believed she was indeed right; he was “crammin’.” We’re going to miss Porter Wagoner, and no one can fill his shoes. He’ll be smiling down on the Opry every week, as the wagonmaster (his nickname) gathers his own Opry in the sky with Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Uncle Dave Macon, June and Johnny, and Hank Snow to entertain the angels.
Porter Wagoner’s death made me think about recent books on country music and especially about the excellent series Music in American Life that the University of Illinois Press publishes. If you have never checked out this series, then you’ve missed a veritable cornucopia of books about the history of American music. The books span musical genres form country and bluegrass to blues, jazz and soul. In this series, you’ll find the definitive history of bluegrass music, Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History and legendary country music journalist’s Bill Malone’s Stars of Country Music: Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez.
In order to understand the impact that country and bluegrass music have had, and continue to have, on American music, here are a few of the books in the series that are must reads:
Charles Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills
Roger M. Williams, Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams
Wayne W. Daniel, Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia
Ivan M. Tribe, The Stonemans: An Appalachian family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives
John Wright, Traveling the High way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music
Hank Snow, with Jack Ownbey and Bob Burris, The Hank Snow Story
Tom Ewing, ed., The Bill Monroe Reader
Carl Fleischhauer, and Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86
Bill Malone, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class
Thomas Goldsmith, ed., The Bluegrass Reader
Stephanie P. Ledgin, Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass
Neil V. Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe, The Music of Bill Monroe
Diane Diekman, Live fast, Love hard: The Faron Young Story
Craig Havighurst, Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City
As I indicated in my earlier review of Havighurst’s book, his fast-paced chronicle of the rise of WSM and its integral contributions to the building of Nashville’s economic base and its cultural identity splendidly recounts the challenges, the personalities, and the music that made WSM what it is today. Havighurst includes snapshots of early Opry performers such as Uncle Dave Macon, Deford Bailey the only African-American on the show and Minnie Pearl, as well as performers such as Dinah Shore, Snooky Lanson, and Pee Wee King, who got their starts on WSM. If you can’t make it Nashville to visit the studios of WSM out at Opryland, or you can’t pick WSM up on your radio, Havighurst’s wonderfully lyrical book is the next best thing to being there.
The University of Illinois series superbly captures moments and lives in our shared cultural history. These books on country and bluegrass music conduct us regally into a lively world populated by loveable folks who, like Porter Wagoner, invite us to “Hey, buddy; come on in.”
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at