Famous Folk from Howell County
Legendary steel guitar player Don Warden, who was born in Mtn. Grove and grew up in West Plains, was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame during ceremonies Saturday evening in St. Louis. Singer Dolly Parton performed at the induction.
“Beyond being one of the most talented musicians anywhere, Don has meant so much to me over the years,” Parton said in a news release to The Quill from Dolly Parton Productions. “No one is more thrilled and proud than me to see him receive this honor that he so richly deserves. I’m so blessed to call him my friend and my No. 1 angel.”
Warden has been Parton’s full-time manager since September of 1975, but his musical career dates back to when he was a junior at West Plains High School.
“If I were to pick any date that was the beginning of my professional career it would be that first day KWPM Radio went on the air. Bob Neathery became my very, very good friend and we remained friends until he died,” Warden told The Quill today. Neathery owned the radio station that grew into the Ozark Radio Network today.
Warden hosted an early morning radio show with his own band, “The Rhythm Rangers,” then came back on air at noon as a disc jockey for KWPM.
“We played a lot of music. Sometimes we got paid, sometimes not,” Warden said of that band.
Also tying Warden to the area is his brother, Fred, a retired minister who’s lived most of his life in West Plains. He talked briefly with The Quill this morning.
It was later, when the band was playing on radio station KWHN in Fort Smith, Ark., that Warden expanded his skills to include a steel guitar in the band.
“I really wanted to include a steel guitar,” Warden said in the press release. “There weren’t any good steel guitar players in Howell County, Mo., so I bought a steel guitar and learned how to play.”
JOINING PORTER WAGONER’S BAND - He later played the Louisiana Hayride with the Wilburn Brothers and Red Sovine. In 1954, Warden crossed paths with a fellow Missouri native, an up-and-coming singer by the name of Porter Wagoner. Warden joined Wagoner’s band as the steel guitar player and soon appeared on the “Ozark Jubilee’’ radio show. Warden became Wagoner’s business manager/road manager. He accompanied Wagoner to the Grand Ole Opry in 1957. Later, Warden was instrumental in selecting talent for the long-running Porter Wagoner Show which was first broadcast in 1961, the press release from Parton said.
It was on the show that Warden met Parton, Wagoner’s new “girl singer.” Warden and Parton’s friendship grew and in 1975, a year after Parton left the Porter Wagoner Show and with Wagoner’s blessing, Warden went to work for Parton as her road manager, the press release said.
As Parton’s career expanded, Warden left the spotlight to work alongside Parton as her driver, business manager, personal manager and tour manager.
Warden was easily recognized as the steel guitar player who played standing up. He also sang the high harmony on Wagoner’s more than 30 early hit records. Wagoner liked all vocals to be sung into one microphone which required Warden to carry his steel guitar to the microphone, sing the harmony, and then carry it back to his place on stage.
Warden also was the first to play the first steel guitar ever made by the Sho-Bud Company in Nashville, Tenn., in 1959, the Parton news release said.
The Steel Guitar Hall of Fame chose its first inductee in 1978 and it supports the art, popularity and prestige of the steel guitar, honors those musicians and composers who have made significant contributions to the steel guitar world, and educates the public regarding the steel guitar.
Warden lives in Nashville with his wife of 52 years, Lois Ann, and told The Quill he has been back to West Plains a couple of times over the years, but not nearly as often as he’d have liked.
In April 2008, Parton unveiled a tribute to him in her Chasing Rainbows museum at her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The exhibit includes a custom-made tour jacket and boots, steel guitar, and pages from Warden’s journals he has kept since 1954 to present day.
West Plains Daily Quill, May, 2008