Editor's note: John Howie Jr., frontman of the Two Dollar Pistols, got sick around Oct. 28, the day Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner, 80, died. He was still recovering at home in Mebane when he relayed the following story of almost meeting Wagoner when the Pistols played Opryland in 2003.
For me, there's a lot about Porter. One of the things you have to understand is that the name is one of the first aural memories I have. That was a nickname my mom had given me, and she would say it in this exaggerated Southern accent: "Porta Wag'na."
He was a big deal in our household, and I'm assuming it's because he was on television. My mother was not typically a country music fan; my dad was the one who listened to that stuff. A lot of people grew up with this Johnny Cash reference, and we had that, too. But certainly in our house, Porter was a big deal.
By the time I got to play at Opryland in 2003 with the Two Dollar Pistols, I had seen Porter play two or three years before in Nashville. I went around Christmas to the Grand Ole Opry when it was staged at the Ryman Auditorium. He was amazing—really, really great.
When the Pistols went to play Opryland, the Opryland organizers set us up in the parking lot. They had these things called Opryland Plaza Parties. We were setting our stuff up, and this woman comes up and says, "I'm your go-to at Opryland. We're thrilled to have you here." Then she said, "Why don't you load up your guitars and I'll take you to your dressing room?" I figured it would be a little tent at best. We were getting paid pretty decently to play Opryland, so I didn't expect for them to give us a nice green room with M&M's or something.
Sure enough, she drives right to the Grand Ole Opry building, which is next to where we're playing. We're looking at each other like, "God, what's going on?" She pulls up to the back door and unlocks it. We're walking into the backstage of the Grand Ole Opry, which for me was a huge deal. I had no idea where we were going to be hanging out, so I was kind of freaking out. This isn't the Ryman Auditorium, but it's still the Grand Ole Opry.
Our guide walks us backstage and she says, "This is your dressing room right down here. And the restrooms are right down there." She made it seem like such not a big deal that I figured all of the people on the Grand Ole Opry that night had to be tucked away somewhere else. There's no way they were letting us back there, yet it was OK with everybody—Jim Ed Brown or whoever else was going to be on the program that night—that we could be in the same space.
We were all just freaking out over the whole experience. Finally, I said, "I'm going to go down to the restroom." It was fairly deserted this early in the afternoon. So I walk into the bathroom, and there was this coat hung over one of the stall doors. It was like a zillion-dollar nudie suit coat, with all the rhinestones on it. I saw the boots underneath the stall, and there was a lot of movement, like somebody was in there changing clothes.
I was already nervous that we were playing Opryland to begin with. We were coming off about a week's worth of touring, and this was our last show before we headed out. I knew we were prepared, but I was really terrified. This was a huge, huge deal for me. I started getting pretty freaked out.
The idea of trying to talk to these people—I can remember "Porter Wagoner" for as long as I can remember hearing anything, and I was 34 at this point—was crazy. I walked out of the bathroom, and I was standing there thinking, "Man, what am I going to do?" It still had not occurred to me who this might be, and as I was walking back to the dressing room, sure enough, there was Porter Wagoner coming out of the bathroom. I was 25 feet from him, and I lost my breath. It was just too much. I took off and went back to my dressing room, where I stayed.
We played two sets, and—in between those sets—I didn't go back to that area because I didn't want to potentially bump into these people. I wasn't ready to put us on that kind of level together. It didn't seem like that was the way things should be. My mother was still alive, and she was there that night. During the break, I told her about it, and she got a big kick out of it. We talked about how nice it would have been if Dad had been able to see that.
The Pistols were supposed to go back to Opryland the next year, and I vowed to myself I would be more aggressive about speaking to those guys. Our transmission fell out in Hickory on the way there, and they didn't have a van big enough for us to rent. I missed my shot at talking to Porter, but that's OK.
These guys are old, and a lot of them are moving on. I haven't gotten that upset about a lot of 'em moving on because it's their time, but something about Porter's passing has been a bummer for me. Everybody in my family got sick when he died.
When I was standing there in that hallway, everything that he stood for was right there. He never let go of those suits or that stubborn, honky-tonk sound. When he died, I listened to one of his records from 1977, which was the beginning of the Barbara Mandrell heyday. But this record was as country as anything he'd ever put out. It could have been from 1966. After all that time, he never let that go. He knew he was a honky-tonk singer, and that's what he did. It was so great to see someone that represented all of that and who stood for it. He was still there in his nudie suit, looking great, playing stone country music. You could feel it coming off of him.