Born in 1927 in the Ozarks, in West Plains, Missouri, Wagoner was the son of a farmer. By 7th grade, Wagoner had dropped out of school, and by age 16, he was married to his first wife. In 1946, he married his second wife, Ruth Williams, with whom he had three children: Richard, Denise and Debra. He and Ruth were divorced in 1988.
He started performing on local radio with his band, the Blue Ridge Boys, in 1950. The next year, a Springfield, Missouri radio station hired him, and the year following, he started recording for RCA Records. Another milestone came in 1953, when he purchased his first Nudie suit, a custom Western-inspired outfit created by Nudie Cohn, a California tailor with a distinctive style that Wagoner embraced.
1954’s “Company’s Comin’” was his first top ten hit, followed the next year with “Satisfied Mind,” perhaps one of his most well known songs and a number one hit on the Country charts. He joined the Opry in 1957 and formed his famous backing band, the Wagonmasters.
1960 saw the beginning of the Wagoner’s syndicated television show, sponsored by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. The show ran until 1981, featuring guests that ranged from Cowboy Copas to Waylon Jennings. He maintained his commitment to both classic country music and his distinctive suits on the show.
His vocal partner, Norma Jean, left the show in 1967 and was replaced by newcomer Dolly Parton. The new duet pairing started an unparalleled creative era in Wagoner’s career. Their first recorded duet in 1968, “The Last Thing on My Mind,” was a top ten hit, one of many between then and 1975.
The duet partners won CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year award in both 1970 and 1971. “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine,” and “Is Forever Longer Than Always,” were some of their many hits together.
Their partnership ended in 1974 over creative differences and culminated in legal battles that extended into the end of the decade. Dolly Parton wrote and released her hit “I Will Always Love You” as a response to the parting of ways. The pair later reconciled, and Parton performed the song for Wagoner at his 50th Opry Anniversary show.
Wagoner stopped recording by 1983, but performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. After the death of Opry legend Roy Acuff in 1992, to many Wagoner seemed to assume the role of elder statesman of the Opry. He released a new album in 2000, titled “The Best I’ve Ever Been,” starting a personal renaissance.
Fellow Opry member Marty Stuart took notice and produced an album, “Wagonmaster,” for Wagoner in 2007. This same year, Wagoner celebrated his 50th Anniversary as an Opry member.
By the end of 2007, Wagoner had been hospitalized for lung cancer and succumbed to the disease at age 80.
His presence remains at the Grand Ole Opry House, however, most notably in the Wagonmaster Dressing Room. Marty Stuart designed the dressing room as a tribute to Wagoner’s signature style and personality.