Don Warden Interview

We sat down with the legendary Don Warden during the 37th annual Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, Missouri for an exclusive interview covering topics of his illustrious career in the Country Music business. Don’s recent induction (August 30th, 2008) into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in St. Louis adds another milestone to his list of accomplishments…Congratulations Don!


(Biography courtesy of Country Stars Central)


Born on March 27th, 1929 to Reverend and Mrs. Charles Warden in Mt. Grove, Missouri, Don Warden had a bright future ahead of him; it was only a matter of time before his dreams became a reality thus taking him all over the world bringing his talents to country music audiences alike.


Don’s initial fascination with the steel guitar began in 1948. Legendary Western-Swing performer Bob Wills use of the steel guitar in his band, “The Texas Playboys” inspired Don to purchase his first steel guitar. Before playing the steel guitar, Don learned how to play the rhythm guitar.


During his High School years Don formed his own band, “The Rhythm Rangers,” playing steel guitar and providing vocals. In addition to running his band, Don hosted an early morning radio show on KWPM out of West Plains, Missouri while working as an announcer and disc jockey in the afternoons.


The Rhythm Rangers worked at several radio stations such as KBOA in Kennett, Missouri and KWHN in Fort Smith, Arkansas, gaining exposure to a broader audience.


After working with country artists Red Sovine and The Wilburn Brothers at The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, Don left the show to serve our country in 1951. While in the army, Don was stationed in the Army Security Agency in Washington D.C., and Boston, MA.


Two years later, after being let out of the service, Don returned to the Louisiana Hayride with Red to perform on the show. The Louisiana Hayride is notorious for helping launch the careers of many American music greats such as Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Jimmie Davis, Will Strahan, Slim Whitman, Floyd Cramer, Sonny James, Hank Snow, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, and George Jones.


After receiving an offer to work on the Grand Ole Opry, Red moved to Nashville leaving his band behind. Following Red’s departure, Don moved to St. Louis, Missouri to attend flight school at the expense of the US army. While studying for his pilot’s license, Don played clubs in the area on the weekends.


After receiving his pilot’s license, Don returned to his hometown of West Plains, Missouri to spend time with his parents. While visiting West Plains, Don drove up to Springfield to reminisce with his fellow musician friends at radio station, KWTO. It was there that Don first met Porter Wagoner. Porter offered Don an invitation to play steel in his band at the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri on the ABC television network, and Don accepted.


In 1957 Don moved to Nashville, Tennessee to perform on The Grand Ole Opry with Porter, and in 1960 Porter began his syndicated television show, “The Porter Wagoner Show” which ran on over 120 television stations. Don worked with Porter for over twenty years as his longtime manager and steel guitar player. The infamous show is also known for giving singer/songwriter, country music superstar Dolly Parton her first big break in the music business. Dolly performed on the show for seven years before leaving Porter to pursue a solo career. Her heartbreaking yet honest signature tune, “I Will Always Love You” was written about Porter and her departure from the show.


Working with Porter Wagoner gave Don the opportunity to travel all over the US playing shows such as The Wheeling Jamboree and Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas, Town Hall Party in Los Angeles, California, and The Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia, as well as travelling overseas to Europe and most provinces of Canada performing shows to international audiences.


On September 1st, 1975, Don began working for Dolly Parton as her full-time manager. This long-lasting relationship both professional and personal has created many years of precious memories and mutual respect amongst the two. Having the utmost admiration for Don, Parton has referred to Warden as her “mentor,” and someone whom she trusts for advice and confides in when in doubt. Don is often thought of as “The Genius behind Dolly Parton.” This coming fall Don will celebrate his 33rd year working with Dolly!


Don bought the first steel guitar made by the Sho-Bud company. The original Sho-Bud steel guitar that Don owned and played for many years is now on display at The Grand Ole Opry museum in Nashville, Tennessee. The Sho-Bud steel guitar is preferred by Don, and he still plays that brand of steel guitar today.


This past April, Don showcased his exceptional talents once again as he played steel guitar for the first time in thirty-four years. Don backed Dolly for her tribute show in honor of the late Porter Wagoner at her Dollywood theme park nestled in the smoky mountains of East Tennessee. (Pigeon Forge to be exact.) It was on the stage that very afternoon that Don was presented with a beautiful trophy from Dolly commemorating his many years of employment with her, and an invitation along with a plaque to join the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri by Dewitt Scott.


Musician, singer, promoter, booking agent, accountant, bus driver, mechanic, trusting friend, loving husband and father… Don has done it all! Don and his wife Lois Ann currently reside in Nashville, Tennessee. He and Lois have one child, a son, Donald Charles Jr.



(CSC) 1. Congratulations on your induction into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. What does this achievement mean to you personally?


(Don Warden)

Well thanks Christian; I’m real excited about this. I never expected it, but it certainly was a nice surprise. Well you know when you do something for fifty years or so it’s kind of nice to get recognized. It’s a good feeling! 



(CSC) 2. Growing up, were your parents supportive of your aspirations to work in the music business being that your father was a dedicated reverend?


(Don Warden)

My father was the pastor of the local church, as you mentioned. We come from a musical family, we’re Assembly of God people and they sang at church, in fact they all sang whether they want to or not. (Laughs) The idea of me going into the music business as a way of life to make my living doing it, he didn’t care for that too much. He didn’t think that was a good thing for me to do. He didn’t think it was bad; he just didn’t like that option. I had a good job that I quit to do this so my parents weren’t too happy about it.



(CSC) 3. What first attracted you to the steel guitar, and who taught you how to play it?


(Don Warden)

I’ll tell ya how it all happened. I like Bob Wills, and I heard this record on the jukebox that was an instrumental. The player I found out later was Leon McCullough, and the tune he was playing was the “Steel Guitar Rag.” After I heard that record a couple of times I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I was going to play steel guitar. There was no one to teach me in West Plains; absolutely no one! There was not a steel guitar within a hundred miles, and no one even was real familiar with it. Like I say, I had a little bit of a musical background so I finally bought myself a little steel guitar at a pawn shop in West Plains, and there was a little note inside the case that showed me how to tune it with A tuning, and E tuning. So I learned how to tune it, and I kept messing with it until I could play “Steel Guitar Rag.” It took me awhile, but I wasn’t taught. I had to learn it myself; that was the only choice I had.  



(CSC) 4. In addition to running your own band, “The Rhythm Rangers,” you hosted an early morning radio show, and worked as a disc jockey in the afternoons. How did you manage to prioritize the three?


(Don Warden)

As I recall, it’s been awhile back, the band was on at around 7:15pm, I had a job as an electrician, then I came back out at noon and I had my record show that was called, “Western Frolic.” It all worked in together pretty well. I was available if they needed me extra at the station. I even did some sports stuff, which I knew nothing about. (Laughs)



(CSC) 5. Did you enjoy being a disc jockey at that time?


(Don Warden)

Yeah I did. I played a lot of Eddy Arnold stuff. That was back in the time when he was really hot! My requests for Eddy Arnold and Bill Monroe were about even. I like both of them!   



(CSC) 6. How did the opportunity come together for you to work with Red Sovine and The Wilburn Brothers on The Louisiana Hayride?


(Don Warden)

Well it’s a long, long story, but I ended up in East Texas playing honky-tonks….they’re rough places! The honky-tonks which were not close were across the line from Shreveport, Louisiana. I had met the Wilburn Brothers, and actually played on the same station with them at KBOA down in Kennett, Missouri with my band. I went over there one Saturday night to the Louisiana Hayride, and of course they were there as members. They asked me what I was doing down there, and I told them I had been working some clubs in East Texas over in Kilgore, Texas. They asked me if I’d be interested in joining them, and I told them I sure would. So that’s the way we got started. I worked with them for about a year and I was very happy with them, but Red Sovine was on the stage and he offered me a deal I just couldn’t turn down.



(CSC) 7. What did you learn from working with the Wilburn Brothers?


(Don Warden)

That brother’s fight! (Laughs) That’s one thing I learned for sure. Of course there were four brothers at that time, it was called, “The Wilburn Family.” The two older boys were Leslie and Lester. When they got into fights, it was usually Leslie and Lester against Doyle and Teddy. I learned, if I joined or agreed with either side, they’d come back at me. They were on one side, and I was on the other. (Laughs) They were great people though.   



(CSC) 8. You left the Louisiana Hayride in 1951 to serve our country for two years. What were some of the challenges you faced during that time in the service?


(Don Warden)

Well I was lucky. I hated the idea of going into the Army because everything was going good. I was drafted, so I didn’t really have a choice. I had heard about the special service, which is a unit that has entertainment and everything, so I thought maybe I could get into the special service union. (Laughs) I talked to the recruiter there in Shreveport, and explained to him that I wanted to know what my chances were of getting into the special service. He told me he really didn’t know, but he suggested that I request that when I was sworn in, and to let my desire be known that I’d like to end up in special service. After I finished the basic training, I asked the Sergeant there, and then onto the Lieutenant about my request. He looked over my file behind that big desk, and he looked at me and he said, “No. where you’re going you can’t take your guitar with you.” That was the end of special service. So I ended up in the Army Security Agency. I didn’t play any instruments when I was in the army.     



(CSC) 9. After Red moved to Nashville to work on the Opry, you attended flight school in St. Louis. Did you initially have plans to pursue a career as a pilot rather than working in the music business?


(Don Warden)

That was my first intention to be a pilot. I always loved it, and that was something I wanted to do, and the army was paying for the training. But the ole music business lured me back. I got my license, and I decided I still wanted to play. I played clubs around St. Louis when I was in flight training. I lived with my sister, who lives out near the airport. Anyhow, I went back to my playing, and that’s when I went to see Porter in Springfield, Missouri.       



(CSC) 10. Tell me about the first time you met Porter Wagoner at KWTO in Springfield, Missouri.


(Don Warden)

Well, Porter’s from West Plains, and I’m from West Plains. Everybody thinks that we grew up together, played music in West Plains together, and that we were friends in West Plains. I never knew Porter in West Plains. I knew of him, and had heard people talk about him, but the first time I met Porter was in Springfield. After I finished my flight training, I went home to West Plains and then up to Springfield to visit some of the guys I was friends with at the station. When I was up there, Porter was there of course too. I told him I was in between thoughts, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. He suggested that I move up to Springfield and go to work with him. I told him why not, and that’s where our many, many years of working together started right there! We worked on the “Ozark Jubilee” and it was a big show back then. It was on the ABC network every Saturday. It was a nice move!     



(CSC) 11. You worked very closely with Porter for many years as his manager and on various programs such as the “Ozark Jubilee,” “Grand Ole Opry,” and “The Porter Wagoner Show.” What was that like, and were there any disagreements?


(Don Warden)

You know, of all the years I’ve spent with Porter, like twenty plus years, we never, never had a bad word between each other, and I have thought and thought because I’ve stated that several times, and I got to thinking there must have been something we disagreed about, but there was nothing! So we got along perfectly. Now Porter finally had a name of sort of being a little bit hard to get along with at times with some people, but I had no trouble with Porter. Most of the times that I have seen Porter have problems with anybody; it was usually that other persons fault or somebody that had done something they shouldn’t or whatever. We got along fine!   



(CSC) 12. Did you have the chance to attend Porter’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Opry last year (May 19th, 2007) and listen to his last album, “Wagonmaster?” What were your thoughts?


(Don Warden)

Yes I did go to his anniversary celebration at the Opry last year. It was great, I liked it, and I went to it with Dolly. He sat out in the audience and Dolly sang to him. It was really nice. Porter deserves everything he has been credited with. As for his last album, I’ve heard parts of it, but I haven’t sat down and listened to the whole thing.



Did you like the style of it?


(Don Warden)

It’s something different. It sold, so how are you going to argue with that?



(CSC) 13. September 1st marks your 33rd year working with Dolly. (Congratulations again on another milestone in your career!) What do you cherish most about your relationship both professional and personal with her as you near this special anniversary?


(Don Warden)

If I had to pick the absolute perfect person to work for, I think I could describe it simply by saying….Dolly! Because I’ve been with her about forty years; countin’ the years that she was with Porter, and that I was with Porter. Working with Dolly has been absolutely great! 



(CSC) 14. You played steel guitar for the first time in 34 years this past April at Dollywood for Porter’s tribute show. What was that like for you sharing that with Dolly in front of your dear friends and family?


(Don Warden)

Well I played a little bit, but I actually played very little until she said she was going to do this program over at Dollywood totally dedicated to Porter. I think you told me that you were there too. She said to me, “Why don’t you play your steel,” and I said, “Well alright but I’m not guaranteeing you anything, but I’ll get it, and bring it, and I’ll play.” It was nice. I enjoyed it very much. Matter of fact, since I’ve finally got it out from under the bed, I’ve been playing it quite a bit since. (Laughs) I may start playing full-time somewhere.   



(CSC) 15. You’ve had many job titles through the years… Which one are you most comfortable in?


(Don Warden)

I think if I had to pick one and go back to the time when I got out of high school, and only do that, I would have wanted to play, just play the steel. I’ve enjoyed being Dolly’s manager and the other job positions that I’ve held with her, but I can really pull one apart when I play it. I wouldn’t want any job unless part of it included playing.



(CSC) 16. You mentioned that Bob Wills was a big influence of yours, did he influence your playing, or who were some artists that you enjoyed listening to growing up?


(Don Warden)

First of all, I listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night in West Plains. The biggest bunch of the people in West Plains listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, and went to church on Sunday morning as a regular routine. I really enjoyed the Opry. As for singers, I like Eddy Arnold a lot, Bob Wills, and I liked his band “The Texas Playboys.” I liked the sound of the Western Swing. I still like Western Swing! Between Western Swing and Eddy Arnold, I also loved Ernest Tubb. To be honest, I have a lot of favorites.



(CSC) 17. You mentioned that your family was musical, what was that like growing up with your family together?


(Don Warden)

Well I thought it was great! It was nothing exceptional because like I mentioned, the church I grew up in they were just singers. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with that religion or not, but they’re happy people! They sing when things go wrong, sing when things are great, sing when they’re happy, and they sing when they’re sad. That was just our way of life.   



(CSC) 18. Lastly, what do you want to be remembered for?


(Don Warden)

Being honest, and if anybody asked me something what I would tell them to the best of my knowledge was true, and I didn’t have to worry about it.