Porter Wagoner, with his trademark rhinestone Nudie suits, high-swept silver pompadour, rail-thin frame and spectacularly weathered face, is an instantly recognizable figure. However, as the striking new release Wagonmaster makes clear, he is, as always, far from predictable. A resolute tradition bearer and Grand Ole Opry star since 1957, Wagoner's extraordinary far-reaching song catalog has also consistently pushed country music into new, often chilling directions, and Wagonmaster boldly upholds his unusual approach. This set--recorded in three days flat--not only verifies the 79-year old Wagoner's still impressive capacity, it cements him as a commanding, relevant force in American music.
Presented and paced like a stage show, the album spins through tales of extreme mental anguish ("Be a Little Quieter"), blind romantic ardor ("Who Knows Right from Wrong"), back-hills hard times ("Eleven Cent Cotton"), powerfully delivered spiritual messages ("A Place to Hang My Hat," "Satan's River") and, with the strikingly offbeat "Albert Erving" and a fine version of the Wagoner-Dolly Parton collaboration "My Many Hurried Southern Trips," some sharply etched, rich glimpses of everyday life.
Wagonmaster hinges on an extraordinary centerpiece, "Committed to Parkview," a song written by Johnny Cash and given to Wagonmaster producer Marty Stuart (then a Cash Band member) in 1983 to give to Wagoner. Stuart forgot to deliver the song and didn't do so until the summer of 2006. The song not only picks up where Wagoner's cult favorite "Rubber Room" leaves off, it extends the theme with devastating effect. Yet Wagoner almost never got the tune: "In 1981, I was on tour with Cash in Europe," Stuart explained, "and I had a Porter tape and played it for Cash, and he and I got into a Porter listening marathon. And Cash said, "I got a song for Porter, called 'Committed to Parkview,'--because they had both been guests there--and he gave me an envelope with a cassette in it to take to him. Well, we got home and I forgot all about it, but when we were choosing material for this album, I remembered and finally found it." Reviving an exotic, grotesque country genre--the madhouse song--with an arresting tone of weary resignation, the song is no lurid novelty; the fact that Cash and Wagoner were treated at the Nashville facility brings undeniable resonance to Wagoner's performance, and carries over to the scorched intensity of equally spellbinding lament "The Agony of Waiting."
Wagonmaster captures the singer in his magnificent twilight, a radiant, arresting demonstration that brings in the full, heavy harvest of country music, one seeded by the traditional folk songs of his Ozarks upbringing and painstakingly nurtured by the singer through to its highest flowering: the meticulously crafted pain and exult of modern honky tonk life. One of the final proponents of the classic mid-20th century country lineage, Wagoner's career, built on signature hits "A Satisfied Mind," "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," began in his native Missouri as a gospel singer and Bill Monroe-inspired, post-war bluegrass picker; after he witnessed the epochal Hank Williams "Lovesick Blues" debut on the Grand Ole Opry during a 1949 visit to Nashville, Wagoner went into overdrive and landed his own radio show back in West Plains the following year. By the end of the decade, he was established as a major national star, and Wagoner's output increased in artistic scope and range of themes, from singular concept albums (the Skid Row-exploration "Confessions of a Broken Man," the uncompromising penitentiary tales of "Soul of a Convict") to macabre hit singles ("Green Green Grass of Home" and the "The Cold Hard Facts of Life"); in 1967, already a multiple Grammy-winner, and host of his own successful syndicated television show (a groundbreaking venture that aired in over 100 markets and had a weekly audience of 3.5 million), Wagoner introduced a relatively unknown Dolly Parton as regular duet partner. The fortunes of both soared, resulting in a highly productive and complex partnership.
Wagoner's extraordinary career has gained him a perspective of startling scope and depth, and has also included some significant adjuncts, not only with Parton, but by his personally-handled hosting, in 1979, of a special guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry by none other the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (an event which raised more than a few eyebrows backstage at Opryland); of equal note is the fact that "A Satisfied Mind" has been recorded by such fans as Bob Dylan and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Despite such extracurricular activity, Wagoner never flirted with "crossover" (as Waylon Jennings said, "Porter couldn't go pop with a mouth full of firecrackers") and remains a strict country purist, one of a very few who still champions--and excels at--country's most archaic style, the recitation, a narrative form that Wagoner lends a gravity and presence not heard since Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter broadcasts (and Wagonmaster's "Brother Harold Dee" is another fine example).
Wagoner's mixture of solemn, homespun authority, colorful, unorthodox subject matter and stone country credibility represents the pinnacle of a musical evolution long since squandered away, and listening to Wagonmaster, he not only maintains but seems to further extend the artistic model originally proposed by Hank Williams. Traveling that spectrum today with a personal, experiential wisdom and the cunning of a master showman, Wagoner's expressive vocals bring each song vividly to life even as it hints at a constant, running emotional subtext. Laden with all the elaborate idiosyncrasies of the Southern Gothic pathology, Wagoner's is an unspeakably rich musical institution, and coming, as Wagonmaster does, from an avatar of the first order, the album is a striking revelation of the power and depth a life spent in country music assumes. "He has always been one of the cornerstones of American Music; one of the remnants of the original vision, his contributions are timeless," producer Marty Stuart said, "Wagonmaster serves as a new chapter on an awesome body of work, and I'm honored to be a part of it."