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Country star looked — and acted — the perfect part

POSTED: May 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Have you ever known people who just looked their part in life?

I’ve known preachers, teachers, lawyers and undertakers who wouldn’t have made it past Kitty Carlisle’s first question on "What’s My Line?"

Porter Wagoner was one of those people who looked the part of a country music star.

He had a rack full of suits with more rhinestones that Liberace. They were emblazoned with big wagon wheels on the sides of the jacket.

But even without the suits, Porter had unmistakable country music hair. He was a tall drink of water to begin with, but that hair gave him an additional three inches of clearance to watch out for.

I interviewed Porter twice. Once was in deep South Georgia. The other was in Macon, where he was appearing at the Grand Opera House. Not to be confused with the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed for more than half a century.

The country music world took a direction in the 1970s that left old Porter behind. The masses were looking for something different than a tall, lanky Missourian in a spangled suit.

When I interviewed him backstage in Macon, he was touring with an all-girl back-up band called "The Right Direction."

I think in reality it was a short-lived novelty that clearly was not the right direction.

But even without a string of hits, Porter had star power. You knew you were talking to a showman. He asked me my name again before the TV camera went on and made it a point to call me by name all during the interview. He’d wink and make a pointing gesture while he talked. Folks at home would have thought we were dear old buddies.

I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities over the years, but Porter Wagoner was different. Despite years without a charted hit, he had the pizazz of a guy who was on top of the world.

When I was a kid, late Saturday afternoon television was filled with syndicated country music shows. Performers like Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, the Wilburn Brothers, and of course, Porter, lit up the screen.

They all had their various sponsors and did live commercials for products like "Bull O’ the Woods" chewing tobacco.

Porter was sponsored by the various products of the Chattanooga Medicine Co., makers of products like "Wine of Cardui," a tonic for ladies who were experiencing what Mama referred to only as "female problems." It was 20 percent alcohol, which could make a woman forget about any number of problems.

The other main product was Black Draught, a laxative. Porter used to sing the jingle, "Black Draught, makes you feel fresh and clean inside."

There was also Soltice, which was Chattanooga’s answer to Vick’s salve.

In the early days, Porter was joined by "Pretty Miss Norma Jean," who reportedly caught the married Porter’s eye. The result was a female problem that a case of Wine of Cardui could not cure.

Norma Jean was replaced by a new "gal singer" named Dolly Parton, who launched her career with Porter before ascending to super stardom.

There were other regulars on the show, like Spec Rhodes, who played the string bass and had a segment where he would chat on a crank telephone with his lady named Sadie.

They don’t make shows like that anymore, just like they don’t make stars like Porter Wagoner. May he find peace and comfort on the rhinestone streets of glory.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays in the print edition only and Sundays.



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