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My Main Man, Porter Wagoner

Coming to terms with the South

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Never mind politics, at least this week; I have Porter Wagoner on the brain. The country music icon, who died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 80, once meant a lot to some friends and me. This story is so personal, I don't even know if it will make sense to anyone else, but as odd as it may sound, here is how Porter Wagoner helped make me whole.

Tall in stature and hairstyle, clad in rhinestone-encrusted suits and silver boots, Wagoner was a walking billboard for country music. He delivered a wide range of songs in an expressive baritone, hosted the longest running country TV show, and was mentor for Dolly Parton, whose recordings with Wagoner earned them acclaim as one of the greatest of all country duos. In the past year, Wagoner had made a surprising career comeback with a new disc, The Wagonmaster, and was suddenly "discovered" late in life, by a new generation of fans who saw him perform on David Letterman and onstage with the White Stripes.

What does this have to do with me? It's a long story, but I'll keep it as short as possible. To oversimplify a bit, I was raised in a fairly sophisticated family that felt trapped in a small hick town in South Carolina. Consequently, I grew up seriously conflicted about the South and Southern culture, attracted to its exuberant vitality (and great food), but turned off by its frequent crudeness and rampant injustices.

That "either/or" mindset toward the South ate at me for years, nowhere more tangibly than in my feelings about country music. At an early age, much of my identity came from reactions to the music I heard, and country songs threw me for a loop. I enjoyed some of them, especially those sung by Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, but whenever I saw country performers on TV, I'd make fun of their sparkly clothes and "hillbilly" accents -- even while I thrilled to their melodies and lyrics. Some Saturdays, I'd watch the Porter Wagoner Show, which was syndicated throughout the South and, beginning in 1967, featured Dolly Parton, a young singer whose pure vocal tones and enormous beehives were equally amazing.

In college, I listened to the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the like -- until the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album of pure, unadulterated, twangy country that, at the time, was as startling as the band's new colorful, rhinestone-studded suits. That album, and the rise in country rock that followed it, stirred something in me and forced me to reassess my relationship with the South. All right, I decided, I definitely love this music, but what does that say about my self-image as the "Anti-hick"? It hit me that it was OK to have more than one culture and one way of viewing the world floating around in my head, but still, the inner cultural divisions continued.

At some point in the early 1970s, I started listening to, along with Led Zeppelin and Zappa, music that a friend called "serious country" -- Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and the like. In 1971, I read a review of a duets album by Wagoner and Parton (or, as fans called them, Porter and Dolly), bought the record, and was thunderstruck.

In 1972, I introduced some friends -- mostly students at Wofford University in Spartanburg -- to Porter and Dolly's music, and we began to catch their live shows whenever they were nearby. This was a far cry from the rock concerts and pop festivals we were used to -- you didn't smell pot smoke and the fans dressed up -- but their adoration of the stars was just as intense as our group of hipsters' worship of Lennon and Jagger. When a song reached a critical point -- say, during Wagoner's recitation in one of his Southern Gothic classics, "Jeannie's Afraid of the Dark" -- you could hear a pin drop.

We also discovered that you could easily meet country stars after their shows. We met and talked to Porter and Dolly a few times -- I even remember helping the high-heeled Dolly onto the tour bus in snowy Spartanburg -- and were charmed by their openness. Porter, in particular, was a treat. Wearing a blue jacket embroidered with big silver rhinestone wagon wheels, he joked with us and revealed a depth and a sharp wit that bowled me over. And that's where my inner divisions and cultural schizophrenia finally dissolved. These flashy country stars, Southern through-and-through, were genuine, bright people, and I knew that the next day I'd listen to both the Beatles and Porter and Dolly and -- finally -- it would be perfectly OK to live as a knowledgeable, sophisto-smartass who also loved our region's downhome ways.

The last time I met Porter was a surreal experience. The pompadoured singer and I stood in the lobby of legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, at an alternative newspaper convention dinner, engaged in conversation with the cartoonist who produces the Tom Tomorrow strip. Talk about reconciling two different cultures! And, as you'd expect, Wagoner's easygoing ways and casual joking made the whole thing seem completely normal. For that, and everything else, thanks, Porter.

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