From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Confidence Builder

True country music is honesty, sincerity and real life to the hilt.

Garth Brooks

Times were hard all over. When I was fifteen, my parents lost our family farm in the Ozark Mountains and we moved into the town of West Plains, Missouri. By the time I was in my late teens, I had a job as a butcher for Sid Vaughn’s Meat Market. I loved music, and when business was slow—which was fairly often—I’d pick up my guitar and play and sing for Sid to pass the time.

Sid thought I had talent. He convinced the local radio station, KWPM, to broadcast a fifteen-minute show three days a week from the market. When Sid told me, I was terrified. But Sid thought it would be good for business, and I wanted to help out. In fact, it turned out it wasn’t that bad. At the start, it was only me and Sid and the engineer, so I could pretend we were just passin’ the time, as always.

The reaction was satisfying. Sid’s business quadrupled within weeks. Still, I was so shy that it took three months before I felt comfortable enough to laugh out loud on the air. Who would have thought that people would notice? But they did. The local folks stopped in, or dropped a note, saying they liked my music, and I should laugh more often. Their friendly acceptance was a real boost to my confidence.

But as soon as I began to feel comfortable playing for my neighbors there in West Plains, another crisis came my way. I’d come to the attention of the folks at KWTO, the big country music station out of the city of Springfield. The station manager, Ralph Foster, offered me my own early-morning show; I would also join the entire KWTO cast on the popular noontime Ozark Farm and Home Hour. E. E. “Si” Simon, one of country music’s legendary businessmen, offered to manage me.

I was ecstatic but terrified. Thirty-five dollars a week, just for making music? Back then, that was a lot of money, even more than I made doing “real work” at Sid’s. But to leave West Plains for a big city? Could I handle it?

I did the only thing I could think of. I asked my friends and neighbors for help. “I’ll be up there all by myself in the big town,” I said on my last local broadcast. “Please write me if you can.”

I got to Springfield on Saturday night; my first show was Monday morning at 5:30 A.M. KWTO had their own band who would back me. We only had one session on that Sunday to practice the songs I’d be singing. The band members seemed real nice; but I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, yet I was expected to go on the air live with only one rehearsal.

Monday morning I was so nervous I could barely get my fingers to work. I wasn’t in Sid’s anymore; I was in a fancy studio with a control booth and lights that told you what to do. And this wasn’t a show for my neighbors; KWTO broadcast to four states.

Well, the show started, and after the first song, my nerves felt worse than ever. So I did what I’d learned to do back in West Plains—I told the truth.

“Folks,” I said, “I’m a country boy, and I sure am nervous coming to a city like this and singing. I hope you like me and my music. If you don’t, drop me a line anyhow; I’d love to hear from you.”

I’m sure the backup band thought I was crazy telling everybody that I was shy and nervous, but I figured they could tell anyhow and it was best to come out and be honest about it. It helped me, anyway, and the next song was a little easier to sing.

Everybody at KWTO had a little cubby mailbox, and I kept close watch on mine. Tuesday: nothing. Wednesday: empty. Thursday; I started to worry. Maybe folks did n’t like my singing, and they were too polite to tell me so. But what could I do? There was nothing on Friday, either, and I worried about that, and my decision to come to Springfield, all weekend.

Still trying to decide what to do, I went in on Monday morning and did my show, then went across the street to the diner for breakfast. When I came back by the mail desk, the lady in charge said, “Porter, when are you going to pick up your mail?”

I said, “Well, I guess as soon as I get some.”

She said, “Oh, Honey, you need to look down in the basement; you’ve got boxes of mail down there.”

Well, I ran down those basement steps and there were three huge boxes—real tall and stuffed full of mail—and all of it was for me! There were thousands of letters, from people everywhere.

I was so overwhelmed that I sat down and cried, probably for ten minutes straight. It was the most touching thing that had ever happened to me in my life. Every time I’d start to get up and go upstairs, I’d start crying again to think that so many people had taken the time to encourage a kid like me.

Finally I pulled myself together because I knew I had to get ready for the noon show. I went upstairs, and as I walked past Ralph Foster’s office, he hollered at me, “Hey, come in here a minute, Porter; I want to see you.”

I was embarrassed because it was obvious I’d been crying, but when the station manager calls you in, you go.

Ralph said, “I guess you’ve seen all the mail downstairs?”

I said, “Yeah, I sure did.”

He said, “Well, we’ve never had anybody get that much mail before in the history of this radio station. I thought you might be interested to know that we’re going to start you at double what we said we would—at seventy dollars a week.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was all I could do to not start crying again. I stammered out my thanks and added, “I’ll always try to do a good job for you.”

I was just a shy country boy from West Plains, who was lucky enough to be taught early on the importance of being honest with your audience—honest with people— and not to be ashamed to be exactly who you are.

Porter Wagoner

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