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Wednesday, April 25th, 2007 Review of Porter Wagoner One of the major problems with modern country revolves around the fact that--save George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn--almost all the characters who poured the foundation for post-World War II hillbilly culture are dead or no longer recording. Which brings us to the miracle of Porter Wagoner's new album, Wagonmaster, produced by Marty Stuart. Wagoner, who kept his corn-yellow pompadour piled high, wide, and handsome, was as wild as Johnny Cash in his prime, but hid most of his sins behind his smooth, pitch-man persona. You can hear it in the music all along the way, though, particularly in the weird "Rubber Room" era of the '60s and '70s. Now nearly 80, Wagoner--the man who brought James Brown to the Grand Ole Opry--is still as theatrical and out-there as ever, even if his once-strong and well-modulated baritone has crumbled to a husk. Stuart, who loved Porter's old syndicated TV show, frames the album with an opening and close that recalls those halcyon days, a Mac Magaha-style fiddle dancing behind it all. In between, the thin man from West Plains, Missouri, moves through a riveting collection of Southern Gothic numbers, starting with "Be a Little Quieter," in which a man is so haunted by memories of his lover that he imagines her walking the halls, taking a bath, ratting the pots and pans. But that's kids' stuff compared to "Committed to Parkview," which Cash sent to Wagoner nearly 25 years ago on learning they'd both spent time in the Nashville mental hospital/drug treatment center. Wagoner opens his spoken-word introduction as if he's playing for laughs, but quickly turns poignant, and the bloodletting hardly lets up: Running through the album are a couple of Bible beaters ("Brother Harold Dee," "Satan's River"), a reprise of "My Many Hurried Southern Trips" (a song about a bus driver's slice-of-life that Wagoner wrote with former singing partner Dolly Parton), and an affecting word portrait of a man from Wagoner's childhood ("Albert Erving") who was so isolated and loveless that he conjured an imaginary companion. Wagoner takes time for a quickie instrumental tribute to his old banjo sidekick Buck Trent, but he's too mired in pathos to highlight the humor in Shawn Camp's "Hotwired." Yet who's to quibble? Much of this is wonderfully creepy ("The Late Love of Mine") and underscored with the kind of weepy pedal steel that fell out of favor when Nashville set its sights on crossover gold. Stuart, his own generation's premier hillbilly throwback, deserves kudos for getting this to the marketplace. And Wagoner, virtually forgotten after Dolly moved on, is to be revered for hanging in there when so many rhinestoned rednecks who put the "path" in Music City's patented brand of pathology chose to check out. --Alanna Nash

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