Country star Porter Wagoner had his first No. 1 hit in 1955 with a song portending his own death, “A Satisfied Mind.” He’s been singing these same quasi-gospel lyrics for the last 52 years: “When my life has ended and my time has run out/My friends and my loved ones will weep, there’s no doubt/But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time/I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind.” And it seems like these stanzas came true for Wagoner, who died of lung cancer Sunday at age 80. At least, it sure sounded like he was in a contented place when we interviewed him four months ago for our “Must” double issue, in which Wagoner was the eldest selectee among our annual EW 100. He’d just released an acclaimed new album, called The Wagonmaster, which he called “the best album I’ve ever done in my career,” on the punk-oriented Anti- label, and was playing a few gigs in rock clubs, not to mention opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden. “It’s a younger audience,” he said, “and people that have never heard of Porter Wagoner are hearing about him now, and I’m very proud about that.” Not that late-career resurgences are the standard by which we should measure a “good death.” But knowing that legends who’ve lost a little of their shine over the years have a sense toward the end of just how loved they are… well, that helps leave us with satisfied minds, anyway.
Wagoner was best remembered by many less-than-hardcore country fans as Dolly Parton’s old duet partner. She’d come to stardom on the TV program he hosted in the 1960s and then struck out on her own in the ’70s, leading to years of estrangement. Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a sort of farewell song for him, though it wasn’t till many years later that he could soak in the sentiment. In May, the Grand Ole Opry hosted a celebration of his 50 years as host of and performer on the venerable radio and TV broadcast, and Parton serenaded him with “I Will Always Love You” — which, no, was not written about Kevin Costner after all, kids. “It was the most emotional night that I’ve ever spent at the Opry in my life,” Wagoner told us in June, shortly after the big night. “And Dolly sang that song, and they had me on a stool, and she just came out and wiped some of the tears away. That’s a wonderful thing, that she stood there and sang it for the whole world to see. My whole family was there in the front row. It was a magical evening and meant more than I could ever say.”
If you ever went to the Opry in recent years on a weekend night and opened your program to find out Wagoner was hosting — or just came across him on radio or TV — you knew you were in good hands that night. Wagoner didn’t have the most distinctive or capable voice in country music, but his genial, joking presence spoke loudly — though it wasn’t as loud as his famously jewel-encrusted “Nudie” suits. He was a showman through and through, but this year’s excellent Wagonmaster album, produced by Marty Stuart, was austere enough that I wondered aloud if he might be tempted to ditch the showy stuff to make sure he got taken seriously this time around. Nope. “That’s a part of my dress forever,” he told me. “I’ve always worn the rhinestone suits. I think they look the best on me of anything I’ve ever put on. So when they make something that looks better than that, if I can afford it, I’ll try to buy me one of ‘em!”
And then there were the records — sometimes the easiest thing to forget about Wagoner, in light of his wardrobe, his Opry leadership ad conviviality, his early TV fame, the legends surrounding the Dolly brouhaha, and even his tall, gaunt frame and trademark blond pompadour. Among his 81 charting singles on the Billboard country chart from 1954 through 1983 (29 of which went top 10), there were some strictly good-timey tunes, like “Company’s Comin’,” his breakthrough hit. But he was better known for sober, even literally grave fare like 1965’s “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hopeful ballad of reconciliation that eventually turns out to be the final dream of a doomed convict about to meet his maker. In the era of country music we’re now in, is it even conceivable to think of a time when somebody could have a hit single called “The Carroll County Accident”? In “Confessions of a Broken Man,” the self-proclaimed bum of a narrator tells his barmates at closing time, “I guess it’s about time to go find me a gutter and tuck myself in for the night.” And then there’s his signature cheatin’ song, “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” in which he comes home early to find his adulterous wife hosting a wild party, and puts his knife to use. Some of these songs were collected earlier this year on an import CD, The Rubber Room, named after a song about the funny farm. If that makes Wagoner sound even darker than the Man in Black, funny you should mention it, because his Wagonmaster album includes another song about a sanitarium, “Committed to Parkview,” that had originally been written by Johnny Cash for Wagoner about a real place where they’d both spent quality recovery time back in the day. These kinds of lyrics could provide a shocking contrast with his religiosity and general bonhomie, and they endeared Wagoner to a new generation of hipster twentysomethings looking to complement Cash in their collections, even as fellow septuagenarians still flocked to enjoy his warmer material at Opryland.
Playing the rock club Safari Sam’s in Hollywood in June, Wagoner needed bifocals to read a few of his lyrics, but seemed mostly recovered from that aneurysm, which made his sudden collapse and lung cancer diagnosis last week a shocker. But he made good on his promise to perform up to the very end. “I don’t have any desire to retire,” he told us in June. “I love to write songs and sing, and I’m just a country boy who’s been blessed with enough talent to get by on. And God bless the people that have afforded me a career all these years. It’s a wonderful thing to happen to a person who does love it.” Porter Wagoner was one of the last links to a golden age of country, and we salute him with satisfied minds and heavy hearts.