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Entertaining The Country: Thoughts On RFD-TV, Porter Wagoner, And The History Of U.S. Rural Culture

November 8, 2007

My dad is a country music fan. He grew up hearing the music, but switched to rock-n-roll as a high schooler—staying with the latter genre through his twenties. Beginning in his thirties and through today, however, he is completely back to country.

When I spoke with him about two weeks ago, he mentioned that recently he has been watching The Porter Wagoner Show through RFD-TV. That network is available via satellite and caters to rural—especially Midwestern—U.S. viewers. Here’s an excerpt from RFD-TV’s “about” page:

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Launched in December of 2000, RFD-TV is the nation’s first 24-hour television network dedicated to serving the needs and interests of rural America and agriculture. The channel is produced and uplinked via satellite to all 50 states from Northstar Studios, in Nashville, Tennessee. The channel is proudly distributed nationwide and carried by DISH Network, DIRECTV, Mediacom, Charter, NRTC, Bresnan and NCTC cable systems, with new cable systems adding the channel most everyday. The corporate and national sales office is based in Omaha, Nebraska. Due to popular demand, the company started publishing its bi-monthly RFD-TV The Magazine in July of 2003 to support its program schedule. Currently, programming is highlighted by the following program blocks:

– Horses on RFD-TV
– Rural/Agricultural News
– Rural Lifestyle
– Traditional & Ethnic Music
– Rural Youth
– Video Livestock Auctions

Details on individual programming may be viewed on this web site by clicking any of the shows listed on the Home Page. RFD-TV, and its program providers, are dedicated to airing only quality, family-oriented programming suitable for viewing by the entire family, at anytime of the day, or evening. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails and letters have been received since our humble launch, all of which say basically two things:

1. Its about time someone paid attention to rural America.
2. Thanks for providing traditional, family-oriented programming.

We are proud of the path that this television network has chosen, and will stay on this course forever. RFD-TV is here to stay.

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And here is how RFD-TV sells its showings of Porter Wagoner’s program:

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The Porter Wagoner Show

(1960-1980)

This 20 year series is in many ways the most successful country music half-hour show in history. Produced in Nashville, virtually every country music performer in the business appeared over the years: Hank Williams, Jr., Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Faron Young, Bill Monroe, George Jones, Lester Flatt, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, and many others…

And hundreds more; including many now deceased performers such as: Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, George Morgan, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Conway Twitty, Archie Campbell, Dottie West and many, many more.

It is also of interest as Dolly Parton was the girl singer with the show form 1967 to 1974. The production values are good and the flavor of the show is up and lively. There were 686 thirty minute episodes filmed, the first 104 being shot in black and white, the remainder in color.

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Of course when dad mentioned The Porter Wagoner Show, my response was: Huh? I’m not too young to remember Hee Haw viewings, but Porter Wagoner is a relic of history to me. (Aside #1: I found it intriguing that Hee Haw is currently not a part of RFD-TV’s line up.)

Being a good son (that day), and a professional historian with field study in U.S. culture, I indulged my dad as he provided a lengthy explanation of what the show was about. Basically he outlined everything mentioned in the excerpt above from RFD-TV. I was also interested because his explanation of the show reminded me of Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd, which I had just seen the week before. [Aside #2: Who knew Andy Griffith (below) could be so good? Wow. He was absolutely perfect for that part. The movie reminded me a lot of A Streetcar Named Desire. But other other than having the same director, I can’t explain exactly why.]

Of course you can imagine my surprise when, one week after the conversation with my dad, I found an obituary for Porter Wagoner in the Chicago Tribune. Here are some excerpts:

——————–

Porter Wagoner: 1927 – 2007
Country music legend, TV host

Porter Wagoner, the blond pompadoured, rhinestone-wearing personification of Nashville tradition, host of the longest-running country music variety show in TV history and mentor to Dolly Parton, died Sunday night of lung cancer. He was 80.

Over a period of nearly 40 years, Mr. Wagoner placed 81 songs on the country music chart, 19 of those duets with Parton, who joined his show in 1967 as a replacement for his first female co-star, Norma Jean. Mr. Wagoner and Parton were named country group and country duo of the year in 1970 and 1971 by the Country Music Association.

Mr. Wagoner’s music often told dark tales of desperate people in stark terms that placed him in the gothic tradition of country music. This was best exemplified in his 1971 recording “The Rubber Room,” about a man who has been driven insane by an unfaithful lover.

He sang with an unadorned, everyman voice, not the booming bass-baritone of a Johnny Cash, the jazz-inflected acrobatics of a Willie Nelson or the bluegrass-steeped purity of a Vince Gill. “I don’t try to show off a so-called beautiful voice, because I don’t feel my voice is beautiful,” Mr. Wagoner once said. “I believe there is a different kind of beauty, the beauty of being honest, of being yourself, of singing like you feel it.”

He reached the No. 1 spot two more times, in 1962 with “Misery Loves Company,” and a dozen years later with “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” a duet with Parton.

More than his music, Mr. Wagoner’s greatest legacy was his syndicated TV series, “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which ran from 1960 to 1979.

——————–

Aside from providing you with some nice trivia, where am I going with all of this?

I’m not quite sure. Perhaps I’m trying to understand what kind of audience there is for rural history and histories. Of course, on a personal note, there’s little doubt I’m also trying to understand my dad and others like him. What is it that he and they get out of this kind of entertainment?

My dad lives in a small town in western Missouri, a town that could be characterized as rural. But he is decidedly not a farmer, doesn’t raise or ride horses, doesn’t go to livestock auctions, and hasn’t exhibited (at least to my knowledge) a charitable concern for the upbringing and entertainment of rural youth. So what does my dad, and those like him, get out of country music and rural entertainments?

I believe everything centers on memory and nostalgia. My dad was raised on a farm. I expect that many others interested in RFD-TV and reruns of The Porter Wagoner Show are nostalgic for youthful times in the country.

These programs and what I will call “rural memory”—closely related to what Leo Marx called “the pastoral ideal”—empower my dad and others with a sense of innocence. Feeling that one was once innocent helps in coping with lives filled with questionable situations, unsure motivations, and regret. Many are nostalgic for that time when no one—including themselves—could question their actions or intentions. In this way listening to country music, and watching Porter Wagoner via RFD-TV, are kinds of religious experience. By reliving one’s innocence you receive the psychological cleansing needed to face, or forget, the day.

But I also believe that engaging rural culture through entertainment, whether via television or country music, is also a rebellion against modernity. By deliberately slowing down, whether for healthy reasons or not, one is resisting the annihilation of time, otherwise called efficiency, that modernity represents.

So much for the simple life. – TL

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