Porter Wagoner,
(Anti-, 2007)

Porter Wagoner,
Sings His Hits
(Time-Life, 2007)

Maybe, one could argue, Porter Wagoner's time came just as his time was running out, in the very year he died (on the evening of October 28, of lung cancer, in a Nashville hospice). I don't mean "time" as in success as country artist. After all, he hosted his own groundbreaking syndicated television show for two decades and had 81 songs on the country charts (overwhelmingly in the 1950s and '60s). As much as anyone he helped launch Dolly Parton's career, and he remained nearly till the end among the Grand Ole Opry's most active, visible presences. I mean time as in, at last, the recipient of the critical props his contemporaries Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard had bestowed on them a long while ago.

Surely only a committed misanthrope (or a hard-core loather of country music) would dispute that he deserved them. It's curious, however, that it took so long. Perhaps it's because Wagoner was always something of a throwback, an embarrassing reminder of country's rural origins just when the music was heading uptown, a movement Wagoner furiously resisted not only in his own art but in others' as well. (Waylon Jennings once cracked, "Porter couldn't go pop with a mouth full of firecrackers.") Here was a tall, gawky guy with a big blond pompadour and spangled Nudie suits, standing as if in conscious, defiant resistance to the very notion of cool. And then there were the songs, some harking back to the Gothic story-telling traditions of old balladry, not to mention the nakedly emotional recitations with their unsparing tales of tragedy and broken lives.

How wonderful that stuff sounds now in an age when country -- at least in the mainstream Nashville sense -- has gone dodo. We have Marty Stuart, both producer and originator of the concept, to thank for the excellent Wagonmaster, in which he teamed Wagoner, himself and Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives band to make some amazingly vital, energetic sounds that, while thoroughly traditional, do not feel dated in the slightest.

Wagoner, who was about to turn 80, was in crisp form as he sang and talked his way through a set of superior hard-country songs, mostly his own compositions and, yes, three recitations (one of them Hank Williams's harrowing "Men with Broken Hearts," a vision of hell if ever there was one). To my hearing, the highlights are Wagoner's strikingly imagined "Be a Little Quieter" and his and Parton's "My Many Hurried Southern Trips." The latter compresses what could be a novel's worth of content into 3:19. There's also a bleak, chilling reading of Johnny Cash's "Committed to Parkview," among traditional country's rare non-comic songs on the theme of mental illness.

No weak cuts or performances are to be heard in any of these grooves. If you love real country music, Wagonmaster will put you on the bus to hillbilly heaven, where surely Porter is singing now.

As part of its Legends of the Grand Ole Opry series, Time-Life has issued a CD of 14 live Opry performances from Wagoner's commercial peak in the mid-1960s. These comprise some of his biggest hits up till then, from "Satisfied Mind" to "Green, Green Grass of Home" to "Skid Row Joe" to "I've Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand." Enjoying all this is something you'll be able to stand, easily. God bless you, Porter, and may you rest in peace.

review by
Jerome Clark

17 November 2007

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