A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 11, 2006
Porter Wagoner has always held a special place in my musical heart. With his electrifying sequined jackets and his most pomp-worthy pompadour, Wagoner turned his syndicated TV show in the 1960s and ’70s into a classic.
While many think of Dolly Parton as a glitzy superstar, I still remember her stunning harmonies with Wagoner. Also unforgettable are those soap commercials in which the duo pulled dish towels out of boxes of Breeze.
In recent decades, Wagoner’s musical output has been negligible. However, his recently released CD, The Versatile Porter Wagoner, is pleasantly surprising. If you like your country music spooky and mysterioso, you have to check this one out.
While the CD has some predictable, modern, Branson-ready country-and-western filler, some of the tunes on Versatile remind me of Wagoner’s weirdest song ever, “The Rubber Room.”
On “Indian Creek,” Wagoner teams up with John Anderson with a musical backdrop of heavy tom-toms and Native American flute as well as a Cherokee fiddle and “Kaw-Liga” steel guitar.
“Sometimes, the water gets crimson red/From the battles they fought and the blood they shed/If you look real close, you can almost see the ghosts and hear the mournful sound of their retreat,” Wagoner sings. The song ends with Wagoner praying to the Great Spirit.
In “Mystery Mountain,” Wagoner challenges the haints and hostile critters on a forbidding landmark, while “Divers Are Out Tonight” is a tale of crime, punishment, and hidden treasure. “Cookeville Kid” is a twangy outlaw/gambler ballad in which Wagoner speaks the lyrics (“Here lies the Cookeville Kid/He bought one too many queens/so said Judge Roy Bean”). Wagoner duets with Pam Gadd on a sweet version of the old folk song “Mary of the Wild Moor.”
You can get the Versatile album for a mere $7.97 on Wagoner’s Web site,
* In Old Oklahoma, by Acie Cargill and The Coyote Kick Band. Cargill isn’t really an Okie — he lives in Illinois and has roots in Kentucky — but he’s got some kin in the Sooner state. After this album, as a born Oklahoman myself, I’d be the first to nominate him for honorary Okiehood.
“I can always tell an Okie,” Cargill says in one song. “They treat you like we’re all in the same boat, nobody’s special. They hold up their end, and they expect the same from you/And they’re not afraid to be friendly.”
This pretty much sums up the spirit of this album, which celebrates the history of Oklahoma, from the Indian migrations up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995.
The album starts off with a seven-and-a-half-minute history lesson called “In Old Oklahoma,” featuring a spoken-word recitation by Cargill in his folksy drawl backed by a jaunty country instrumental. Cargill’s Coyote Kick Band does some convincing Western swing on “Okies,” another spoken-word piece, this one concerning the Dust Bowl.
As he’s done on some of his past records, Cargill, who wrote nearly all the tunes on this album, turns over the microphone to various relatives and friends, giving the effort a homey, homemade feel. Standouts include celebrated singer-songwriter James Talley, whose “Oklahoma, You’re OK” is a moving ballad about the 1995 bombing. It reminds me of another recent Talley song, “I Saw the Buildings,” which is about September 11.
I’m also fond of cowgirl singer Mary Minton’s contributions in “Pawnee Bill” and “Tom Mix and Lucille Mulhall.”
In Old Oklahoma is part of a planned trilogy of Cargill albums honoring Oklahoma’s statehood centennial, to be observed in 2007. Red Dirt, which isn’t available yet, features Cargill, his uncle Henson (“Skip a Rope”) Cargill, Talley, Byron Berline, and others doing original tunes plus covers of Okie giants such as Woody Guthrie, Spade Cooley, and J.J. Cale. Also in the works is Oklahoma Roots, featuring Cargill and his pals.
*The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson This is the third tribute album to the old lion in recent years. Perhaps it makes sense that Kristofferson would inspire so many people to want to cover his tunes. After all, most of us old fans were introduced to his songs through interpretations of others. “Me and Bobby McGee” was first recorded by Roger Miller but made famous by Janis Joplin; Johnny Cash had a hit with “Sunday Morning Coming Down”; Ray Price recorded “For the Good Times,” to which Al Green later would add soulful new dimensions; and one-hit-wonder Sammi Smith’s soulful country/pop cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” is the version we remember.
The previous tributes, Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down and Nothing Left to Lose (both released in 2002), consisted mostly of alt rockers and alt-country types. Pilgrim, on the other hand, is more mainstream, with singers such as Emmylou Harris; Willie Nelson; Waylon Jennings’ widow, Jessi Colter, and their son, Shooter Jennings; Roseanne Cash; and Rodney Crowell.
Among my favorite songs on Pilgrim are Crowell’s two-steppin’, honky-tonk version of “Come Sundown” and Gretchen Wilson’s properly aching “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
I can’t forget Todd Snider’s convincing version of a relatively obscure song called “Maybe You Heard,” written after Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge divorced. The song angrily blasts friends who took sides in the aftermath of the breakup. Snider sounds like he’s taking it personally as he sings the final refrain, “Don’t turn away, hey goddamn you, you used to love her ... don’t you condemn her.”
The album has a couple of clunkers though. Brian McKnight’s overwrought, middle-of-the-road, soul/samba version of “Me and Bobby McGee” makes me yearn for Janis. Also, if the producers wanted someone to sound like Claudine Longet, why didn’t they just hire Claudine Longet instead of Jill Sobule, who duets with Lloyd Cole on a forgettable “For the Good Times”?