- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. When Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner contacted Dolly Parton recently, he was looking for a little affirmation from his former '60s duet partner.

Mr. Wagoner had just completed his first album in two decades. He wanted Miss Parton's reaction.

"We know each other probably as well as two people can know each other," he says. "I thought she'd give me an honest answer."

Miss Parton responded by sending him a long letter, praising the album as "by far the best thing you've ever done."

He decided to call the new CD "The Best I've Ever Been," which marks his debut on Shell Point Records.

The album could help revive Mr. Wagoner's artistic reputation. The 72-year-old singer has become better-known for his rhinestone suits and showmanship than for his music.

"I'm not trying to show you what a great singer I am. I just want to show you what I've been getting away with for all these years," jokes Mr. Wagoner from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

But Mr. Wagoner has a long list of hits including country music classics "A Satisfied Mind," "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "The Carroll County Accident" that would be the envy of most Nashville artists,

Like his old hits, Mr. Wagoner's new material is simple musically. The narratives are straightforward, with an occasional surprising lyrical twist.

At the end of "Green, Green Grass of Home," it is revealed that the story about a happy homecoming is the dream of a prisoner.

On the new "I Knew This Day Would Come," a young woman leaves her aging husband for a young lover, only to find herself in the same situation years later.

"Country audiences don't want to have something so complicated it takes a German scientist to figure out what … you're trying to say to them," Mr. Wagoner says. "Good country music is kind of like getting a straight, honest answer."

Mr. Wagoner was raised in West Plains, Mo. His first hit was "Company's Comin' " in 1954. His career took off six years later when he became the host of his own syndicated TV show, which ran for 20 years.

He promoted his records to a weekly audience that grew to 3 million homes at its peak in the 1970s. The show also was a springboard for Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and other newcomers on the country music scene.

In the mid-1960s, he was joined by Norma Jean, whose hits included "Go Cat Go" and "I Wouldn't Buy a Used Car From Him." Miss Parton replaced her in 1967.

Miss Parton and Mr. Wagoner teamed up on "Please Don't Stop Loving Me," a No. 1 hit in 1974, and other duets. He produced her solo records until she left in 1976. As her star rose, Mr. Wagoner faltered as a recording star. His last major hit was "Making Plans," a duet with Miss Parton that was released in 1980.

"I really didn't have any big desire to make another CD during my career," Mr. Wagoner says. "I'd already had a lot of success."

Instead, he settled into the role of elder statesman at the Grand Ole Opry, the 75-year-old weekly radio program on Nashville's WSM-AM. Mr. Wagoner became the star most associated with the show after Roy Acuff's death in 1992.

Mr. Wagoner decided to do the new album after receiving a tape cassette with 22 songs from Missouri farmer Damon Black. The two men had known one another 25 years earlier, when Mr. Black was a struggling songwriter in Nashville.

Mr. Black had recently made millions selling land to Wal-Mart.

"So he told his wife, 'I'm going to do what I want to do now, which is write a CD for Porter Wagoner,' " the singer says.

Mr. Wagoner didn't listen to the cassette for a few days, then put it on one evening. "They were the best songs that I'd ever heard in one group," he says. "I was still listening to them at 4 o'clock the next morning. I listened to them all night long, starting to learn them."

Mr. Wagoner isn't counting on airplay on mainstream country music radio stations, which have become increasingly youth-oriented. But he's hoping fans will find him through the Internet and other alternative outlets.

He has worked the new material into his frequent Grand Ole Opry performances. The show still reaches a huge audience on AM radio each Saturday night and with live broadcasts on the Internet.

"Having new music seems to have added a kind of youth to my act," Mr. Wagoner says. "Man, with that and Viagra … I might have a new career here."

Porter Wagoner's home page is https://www.porterwagoner.com.

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