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Porter Wagoner - Wagonmaster Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Anti/Epitaph
reviewer:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageOne of the great unheralded ambassadors of country music, Porter Wagoner is a rhinestone-clad throwback to the old, more conservative Nashville, before outlaws like Waylon and Willie came along to upset the apple cart. Not a household name like Hank, Haggard or Cash, Wagoner was nonetheless a pivotal performer, producer and pioneer in country. He influenced everyone from Johnny Cash to the Byrds and Gram Parsons to Dwight Yoakam, and recorded dark, brooding concept albums filled with mournful country laments on the lonely and the mentally ill. He is most famous in many circles, of course, for introducing a young Dolly Parton to the world on The Porter Wagoner Show, his groundbreaking, long-running syndicated television show that was broadcast for an amazing 21 years, and for recording a series of duets with the soon-to-be international star that yielded 14 Top 10 hits between 1967 and 1974.

Wagoner's reputation took a hit with the messy split from Parton, but he went on to build a catalogue of country hits (and a wardrobe of outrageous Nudie suits) that may not be as well-known as those of his contemporaries, but continue to ring dark and deep and timeless. “Misery Loves Company,” “I’ve Enjoyed As Much of This As I Can Stand,” “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” were all deeply-rooted, hard-country classics that Wagoner made popular to a wide new audience through that most modern medium of the moment – television.

This new album Wagonmaster, produced by longtime Johnny Cash sideman Marty Stuart, himself a torchbearer of traditional country, recaptures some of the feel of those chilling concept albums, along with some rousing old-time honky-tonk numbers. The result is a record of aching gentility, beautifully capturing the pride of a country gentleman at 80 years of age.
Stuart, who loved Porter's old TV show, and himself no slouch with the mandolin, is duly deferential to the old master. He had originally approached Wagoner with an unrecorded song Cash had written for him some 20-plus years ago called "Committed to Parkview." In the tradition of Porter's haunted ballads, it is a patient’s first-person account of the infamous Nashville sanitarium, where both Cash and Wagoner had spent time, listening to the tormented cries of fellow inmates. It is a defining highlight of the album, and as in his classic haunted tunes like “Rubber Room,” Wagoner seems to have anticipated dark balladeers like Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen, or Cash himself, with his distinctively soulful, unadorned country baritone.

After the old-time traditional “Wagonmaster” intro, the album starts strongly with the achingly ironic "Be a Little Quieter," the tale of a man so haunted by memories of his lover that he imagines her walking the halls, taking a bath and rattling the pots and pans. Wagoner typically spans the country mile from the sacred to the profane, with a couple of Sunday sermons in "Brother Harold Dee" and "Satan's River" countering winsome memories like "My Many Hurried Southern Trips," a tune that Wagoner wrote with Parton, and a loving tribute to a man from Porter’s childhood, "Albert Erving,” who, in fine tradition, was so lonely that he created his own imaginary companion. “The Agony of Waiting” and the Porter-Marty Stuart duet of Porter’s spoken-word “Men With Broken Hearts” continue that deepest of country themes – regret, and Porter’s voice rings true and affecting with a hard-won, well-lived authenticity in his spoken introductions and recitations.

Stuart, this generation's premier hillbilly throwback, deserves kudos for getting this kind of record out of Wagoner at his advanced age. The album was derailed for a time by Wagoner’s life-threatening illness, and just as Rick Rubin managed to do with Cash, Stuart has really found the core of his music and the strength of his aging but still agonizingly expressive vocal.

The instrumentation is also simple and sensitive to tradition, underscored with the kind of weepy pedal steel that fell out of favor in Nashville during the Nixon era.

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