NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Porter Wagoner, the rhinestone-clad Grand Ole Opry star who helped launch the career of Dolly Parton by hiring her as his duet partner, died Sunday. He was 80.
Wagoner, who had survived an abdominal aneurysm in 2006, was hospitalized again in October 2007 and his publicist disclosed he had lung cancer. He died at 8:25 p.m. CDT in a Nashville hospice, a spokeswoman for the Grand Ole Opry said.
"The Grand Ole Opry family is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our dear friend, Porter Wagoner," said Pete Fisher, vice president and general manager of the Opry. "His passion for the Opry and all of country music was truly immeasurable. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time."
His illness came after a comeback that saw him recording again and gaining new fans even as he reached his 80s.
In May 2007 he celebrated his 50th year in the Opry. After years without a recording contract, he also signed with ANTI- records, an eclectic Los Angeles label best known for alt-rock acts like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Neko Case.
The CD "Wagonmaster," produced with Marty Stuart, was released in June 2007 and earned Wagoner some of the best reviews of his career. Over the summer, he also was the opening act for the influential rock duo White Stripes at a sold-out show at New York's Madison Square Garden.
"I was thinking while on stage last night, 'This is the biggest, most well-known arena in the country, and here I am performing at it,"' he told The Associated Press at the time.
The Missouri-born Wagoner signed with RCA Records in 1955 and joined the Opry in 1957. "It's the greatest place in the world to have a career in country music," he said in 1997.
His showmanship, rhinestone suits and pompadoured hair made him famous, with his own syndicated TV show, "The Porter Wagoner Show," for 21 years beginning in 1960. It was one of the first syndicated shows to come out of Nashville, and it set a pattern for many others.
"Some shows are mechanical, but ours was not polished and slick," he said in 1982.
Among his hits, many of which he wrote or co-wrote, were "Carroll County Accident," "A Satisfied Mind," "Company's Comin'," "Skid Row Joe," "Misery Loves Company" and "Green Green Grass of Home."
The songs often told stories of tragedy or despair. In "Carroll County Accident," a married man having an affair is killed in a car crash; "Skid Row Joe" deals with a once-famous singer who's lost everything.
In 2002, Wagoner was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
To many music fans, though, he was best known as the man who boosted Parton's career. He had hired the 21-year-old singer as his duet partner in 1967, when she was just beginning to gain notice through songs such as "Dumb Blonde."
They were the Country Music Association's duo of the year in 1970 and 1971, recording hit duets including "The Last Thing on My Mind."
Parton's solo country records, such as her autobiographical "Coat of Many Colors," also began climbing the charts in the early 1970s. She wrote the pop standard "I Will Always Love You" in 1973 after Wagoner suggested she shift from story songs to focus on love songs.
The two quit singing duets in 1974 and she went on to wide stardom with pop hits and movies such as "9 to 5," whose theme song was also a hit for her. Wagoner sued her for $3 million in assets, but they settled out of court in 1980. He said later they were always friendly, "but it's a fact that when you're involved with attorneys and companies that have them on retainer, it makes a different story."
At a charity roast for Wagoner in 1995, she explained the breakup this way: "We split over creative differences. I was creative, and Porter was different."
He said in a 1982 Associated Press interview that his show "was a training ground for her; she learned a great deal and I exposed her to very important people and the country music fans."
She was present at the ceremony in May 2007 honoring Wagoner on his silver anniversary with the Opry. At the time, he called Parton "one of my best friends today." She also visited him in the hospital as he battled cancer.
Wagoner was born in West Plains, Mo., and became known as "The Thin Man From West Plains" because of his lanky frame. He recalled that he spent hours as a child pretending to be an Opry performer, using a tree stump as a stage.
He started in radio, then became a regular on the "Ozark Jubilee," one of the first televised national country music shows. On the Opry since 1957, he joined Roy Acuff and other onetime idols.
At one point his wardrobe included more than 60 handmade rhinestone suits.
"Rhinestone suits are just beautiful under the lights," he said. "They've become a big part of my career. I get more compliments on my outfits than any other entertainer — except for Liberace."
While he continued with the Opry, and even had a small part in the 1982 movie "Honky Tonk Man" starring Clint Eastwood, his recording career dried up in the 1980s.
"I stopped making records because I didn't like the way they were wanting me to record," he said. "When RCA dropped me from the label, I didn't really care about making records for another label because I didn't have any say in what they would release and how they would make the records and so forth."
After his New York show in 2007, tears came to his eyes as he recalled the reaction.
"The young people I met backstage, some of them were 20 years old. They wanted to get my autograph and tell me they really liked me. If only they knew how that made me feel, like a new breath of fresh air. To have new fans now is a tremendous thing."