Thursday, January 14, 2021

Porter and Dolly and my hometown


The circumstances of my birth are exceedingly humble, indeed.

I was born in a hill-country farmhouse near the village of Naylor, MO, a town so small that the signposts saying entering and leaving are back-to-back. Attending at my birth was a country doctor who still made house calls.

At the age of 7, my dad sold the family farm and we moved one county over to the relative metropolis of Poplar Bluff. The Bluff, as locals called the 17,000-population city, was first settled on a bluff covered with tulip poplar trees overlooking the Black River.

Geographically, it’s an interesting place. To the west and north are the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, with springs, national forests and the sparkling float-trip rivers of the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways. To the east and south are the flat lands of the Missouri Bootheel, with reclaimed swamps, mosquitoes, cotton and soybean fields and crumbling sharecropper shacks of a bygone era of servitude.

That’s about all there is to recommend Poplar Bluff.

Yet the place that I call my hometown was memorialized on a 1970 album by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca. “40 Miles From Poplar Bluff” is a paean to the supposed glories of being poor in the Ozarks. That theme was covered much more eloquently in Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

A couple decades ago, I bought a greatest-hits CD of Porter and Dolly just to have a copy of the song out of some sense of nostalgia. My initial sense of this song as a mindless little ditty about days gone by has not aged well at all. Being poor in the country isn’t quite so noble in the times of opioid addictions, crumbling health-care infrastructure and economic stagnation.

The authors of “40 Miles” flipped through every page in the book of cliches to create this piece of hillbilly hokum. The narrator wears hand-me-down shoes, the daddy drinks coffee from leftover grounds and a Missouri winter can be tolerated as long as daddy has his “tabaccer” and grandma has her snuff. The family’s only treasure is an old radio that takes them places they know they will never go. The writers also don’t know much about rural morality in their claim that “a man thinks of his neighbor and not his neighbor’s wife.”

But what incenses me now are the last two lines of the chorus:

“Life is far from fancy sometimes mighty rough
But contentment makes it worth it 40 miles from Poplar Bluff”

Yes, just be content that your earthly existence is an inescapable life of poverty in a home on a hillside in the middle of nowhere.

I was not content to remain in Poplar Bluff. Neither were most of my friends. The Poplar Bluff city-limits sign receding into the distance in my rear-view mirror was a beautiful sight.

Ripley, my birth county, is at the bottom of Missouri’s 114 counties for per-capita income. Neighboring counties fare no better. With Poplar Bluff as a regional hub for shopping and medical care, Butler County, at least, is at the middle for per-capita income.

On one of my infrequent trips back home, I took the back roads out of West Plains (Wagoner’s birthplace) to get to Ripley County and my cousin’s farm. A buddy from Kansas City traveled with me. “I can’t believe this is where you are from,” he uttered as we drove past one destitute hovel after another.

Porter was 100 miles from The Bluff: Porter Wagoner is a native of West Plains, which is 100 -- not 40 -- miles from Poplar Bluff. His TV show aired 686 episodes during a 21-year run. He charted 81 singles from 1954 to 1983. Parton partnered with Wagoner for seven years. When she struck out on her own, Wagoner hit her with a breach-of-contract lawsuit. They settled out of court and were estranged until shortly before his death in 2007. She sat with him the day he died. Before she left the show, she wrote “I Will Always Love You” for him, and it went on to become one of her most-well-known songs.

Thirteen duet albums for Porter and Dolly:
Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca is the fourth collaborative studio album by Wagoner and Parton. It was released on March 9, 1970, and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and No. 137 on the Billboard 200 chart. Two Top 10 singles were released from the album, "Just Someone I Used to Know" and "Tomorrow Is Forever," peaking at 5 and 9, respectively. Wagoner and Parton released 13 duet albums and had 14 Top 10 hits.

Songwriter was a hitmaker: Larry Kingston, who wrote “40 Miles,” worked with Porter and Dolly’s Velvet Apple Music. He wrote Top 40 hits for a plethora of artists, including George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Roy Clark, Wagoner, Reba McEntire, Vern Gosdin, Don Williams, Mark Chesnutt, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ringo Starr and many others. Among his memorable songs were the BMI Country Award winners "Thank God and Greyhound," "Biloxi," "Pittsburgh Stealers," "Lovin' Machine" and "It's Not Over If I'm Not Over You."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Spammers will not be tolerated. You casino scammers will be reported immediately and your comments deleted.