Porter Wagoner doesn't have a catalog of country hits as well-known and oft-covered as the work of his contemporaries Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Merle Haggard. But Wagoner played a pivotal role in popularizing country music, via his long-running syndicated television show, the first national forum for fresh-faced singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, among others. In later years, Wagoner's reputation took a hit, due to legal squabbles with Parton and the persistent image of Wagoner as a hidebound traditionalist in garish "Nudie suits." But last year, Wagoner's legacy began to turn again, thanks to The Rubber Room, a brilliantly assembled Australian compilation of his stranger '60s and '70s songs, and thanks to Wagoner's old friend Marty Stuart, who started working with him on the just-released back-to-basics comeback album The Wagonmaster. Before they could get started, Wagoner suffered an abdominal aneurysm that nearly killed him, and making The Wagonmaster became part of his rehabilitation, as he revisited his back catalog and some new songs—including one, "Committed To Parkview," written for him back in the '70s by Johnny Cash, who also spent time at the Parkview sanitarium in Tennessee. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Wagoner about his new album and his long career, and found him a little frailer than he used to be, but still his genre's greatest ambassador.
The A.V. Club: How's your health these days?
Porter Wagoner: I feel real good, I think I've just about completely recovered. The doctor says I'm almost about 100 percent back to where I was. I've lost a little bit of weight, but I feel good.
AVC: What was the aneurysm experience like?
PW: Oh, unbelievable. I've never been through anything like it. The surgery and everything, it was just unreal. It's really a dangerous thing that happened, and of course it takes the lives of most of the people that it hits. I'm real fortunate that I got through it, and I think I'm probably better than I was before it started.
AVC: Did coming so close to death give you any sense of urgency about work you still need to get done?
PW: Not really. I'm just really grateful that I got over it and got a chance to do this album that I wanted to do so much. And I'm just real honored that it all turned out so well.
AVC: How did The Wagonmaster come about?
PW: Well, we were fixing to do it when I had the aneurysm attack on the 14th of July, last year. That put a halt on everything, until I got over the surgery. Marty stayed in touch with me, and we'd get together occasionally and talk about doing the album and so forth. He said, "Well, as soon as you get to where you feel like it, we'll get together and pick a little, just get our guitars and see what happens." And we did, and I started to get better as we done that, and of course several months passed where I was just trying to get my strength back, because they cut me from head to toe. Surgery was so drastic that it just really zapped all my strength out of me. Thank God I've got it all back now, I think.
AVC: Did Marty Stuart contact you originally about this record?
PW: Yes, he did. We had talked about it a lot, but never really had anything done on it. Once we got together and started picking a little bit, we'd work about a half-hour at a time, then we got to where we were working out maybe an hour at a time, until my strength started coming back as I was doing that. That's how we got into it.
AVC: The record has a real fullness. It goes from one place to another, and covers a wide variety of songs. It's really well thought-out.
PW: Well, I'm really proud of it. I think it's the best work I've ever done in my whole career, thanks to Marty. He's such a special person in my life now. We were real close friends all these years, and I wasn't aware of some of the feelings he had toward me, and that he was such a loyal friend, too. So it all has a special meaning.
AVC: Do you generally feel that country music has strayed from its roots, or are you okay with country however it is?
PW: I've just always been a real country person. I didn't have any desire to go into any other direction other than just what I've done, and that's about it.
AVC: Johnny Cash wrote "Committed To Parkview" for you, and then it was lost for decades. What did you think when Marty Stuart first played it for you?
PW: It's typical Johnny Cash. It says everything the way he'd say it, and I just felt so honored by the fact that he'd write a song with me in mind. I didn't realize that we were both in the same hospital at one time, or whatever you'd call it. Parkview. He knew I was in there, but not at the same time he was. I went in because I was tired. I was working so much. Dolly had just became a part of my show, and we were on the road over 200 days a year, playing one-nighters. There was just a lot of work, and I had worked myself to where I was in a frenzy, sort of. The doctor told me I needed to go in the hospital for rest. I didn't realize then how tired I was, but I rested about maybe a month in there. It really helped me. Got me straightened up.
AVC: Did you worry that recording the song would be too revealing?
PW: No, I didn't. I looked forward to recording the song because I felt like it really told it like it is. It just starts off like it's the real thing, man. Because that's the way Cash wrote his songs, really just the way it is. It talks about a man across the hall who sits staring at the floor, and he thinks he's Hank Williams, hear him singing through the door. That's pretty real stuff there, and that's just the kind of material that Johnny wrote.
AVC: You've always been attracted to those sort of dark songs. Why is that?
PW: Mainly because they were the ones that became real popular for me. I had several number-one songs, like "The Carroll County Accident," that was a number-one song in 1969. Another number-one song was "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life." Those were songs from the dark side, and they were things that people liked to hear me do, it seemed like. Of course, you wanna sell records to the people that really like what you're doing. That's why I did those kinds of songs. I could relate to them, and I could do them to where people liked them.
AVC: Did you hear that compilation of your work that Omni put out last year, Rubber Room?
PW: Oh yeah, I did, and I thought it was one of the best compilations I've ever heard of me. They done one of that guy Henson Cargill, who did "Skip A Rope," and I didn't think it was very good. But they gave a lot of care to mine, and I think out of 12 albums, they picked some songs that were not only from the dark side, but songs that you could tell they just liked what I was doing. I was real honored that anyone would think that much of my performances. They wrote some things on the album that I thought were pretty neat too, like, "If you listen to this album in its entirety, you'll never be quite the same again." That's pretty strong stuff. I wrote a letter complimenting them on doing such a great job with the album. I thought it was just really well done, even down to the picture that they picked for the cover.
AVC: Having done so many different things in your career, is it interesting now how people can pick and choose what they think is the best of your work, and in some way define what they think you were?
PW: Yeah, and that's one of the things I was so impressed with about the record label Anti-, a rock label in L.A. I went out there to meet the people that ran the place, and I was so impressed by them. They just gave me a new energy, and made me want to do well in the business again. They were young people, but they were so honored to have me on their label. They just treated me like I was a new, great artist, man. That's something I think everybody needs in their life, especially when you get in your late 70s and you haven't had a hit in a while. You need things like that to make you enthusiastic again. I left there with a lot of energy from the young people there.
AVC: You were 30 when you joined the Grand Ole Opry. What was the Opry like back in the late '50s?
PW: Well, it was much easier then in every way. The whole industry was. Back when I joined in 1957, I don't know really how to explain it, it was just more authentic then. When rock 'n' roll came along, and Elvis got hot during that period, it was hard to get concert dates and to build a career, and I was really fortunate. I never did fault the people that I was selling records to, I tried to do what they wanted to hear, and that's why I did a lot of songs like "The Rubber Room" and so forth. I wanted to sell records, and I wanted to do what my fans wanted. I think that may be that's why I've lasted this long.
AVC: You went through several different country-music booms, because the genre was down in the late '50s, then back up, then down, then up. What was your favorite era?
PW: Of course, I liked it when my television show was very popular, from 1960 to 1981. That really helped the sale of my records, and helped the sale of me in general. That makes a huge difference in how you can cope with things. Then you're not trying to follow trends, you're trying to set trends yourself. That's how I was with the television show. I was very proud of it. It's one of my biggest accomplishments in the music business, the fact that my show ran for 21 years. It not only started Dolly Parton's career, it started mine, too, and it started a lot of other people in country music. That was one of the reasons I valued my television experience, and being on television every week more than I did the hit records. It's great to have hit records, but you can't always have them. I felt like the television show was a lot better for my career than to try and make hit records all the time.
AVC: Because the TV gig was always there?
AVC: Dolly Parton wrote "I Will Always Love You" for you, correct?
PW: Yeah, that's what she says. [Laughs.]
AVC: That song is everywhere now. When you hear it, what do you think about?
PW: Well, I think about that she wrote the song for me, and it's a very special song in my life. Dolly and I were working together then, and I helped influence her a lot, I think, in different areas. I put her career in front of mine back then, because I wanted her to be successful. I worked very hard on producing her records, and everything she was involved in, I tried to make sure that she was great at it. I think about it a lot. I'm proud of each thing that Dolly and I did together, and she of course she went on to bigger and better things, but that was the launching pad I think for her entire career, and I think she'd tell you that. She's just a great lady. She was when I first met her, and she still is today. She's going to be on the show with me to help me celebrate my 50th year at the Opry. Her and I have patched up all our differences and become real close friends again, and I like that very much.