A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 3, 2007
Porter Wagoner hasn’t had a bona fide country hit in decades. And it’s doubtful that any songs from his new album, Wagonmaster, will get any significant airplay on commercial country radio.
But fans of country music should love this record, whether they’re longtime Porter fans, baby boomers who would get stoned and watch the rhinestoned Porter sing with Dolly Parton on his syndicated TV show, or alternative-country fans looking for authenticity. Even “hip” irony seekers who love to laugh at song titles like “Satan’s River” and corny recitations over whining steel guitars should like it.
Cynics might say this is just another comeback album by some aging, faded star produced by an adoring younger fan (in this case, respected country picker/singer/songwriter Marty Stuart) trying to duplicate what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash or what Joe Henry did with Solomon Burke. (This album is on the Anti label, on which Merle Haggard released his wonderful “comeback” album, If I Could Only Fly, a few years ago.) Maybe so. But who cares? Both Porter and Marty shine here.
Though he turns 80 this month and his voice isn’t what it used to be, Porter sings with an easy confidence. Meanwhile, Stuart’s arrangements — featuring lots of tasty steel and fiddle and no trace of Nashville overkill — give the record a timeless quality.
There are some straight-out honky-tonkers here. One of my favorites is a sawdust shuffler called “Be a Little Quieter,” the lament of a man imagining angry late-night visits from a past love. “Last night I heard you walking in the hallway/And your footsteps sounded like a marching band.” Then there’s “A Fool Like Me,” which would have been perfect on a Gram Parsons album.
“The Agony of Waiting” and “A Place to Hang My Hat” are outright country weepers. If you can’t feel the pain in the slow, mournful “The Late Love of Mine,” you must be numb. It’s got an early Willie Nelson feel to it (think “Opportunity to Cry” or “Something to Think About”). “Who Knows Right From Wrong” sounds like a belated sequel to Porter’s old classic “A Satisfied Mind.”
But the kind of song that suits Porter best is the story song. There are several on Wagonmaster.
“Albert Erving” is the tale of a lonely quasi-hermit from Wagoner’s youth. “Albert never held a woman or child/ You could see that loneliness had drove him wild.” My only complaint is that Porter’s spoken introduction — which takes up about two minutes in this three-minute song — basically tells the whole story. He should have just sung it.
The spoken-word recitation “Brother Harold Dee” is the story of a ne’er-do-well backwoods beatnik who ends up as a tent preacher, making his family proud. Even better is “My Many Hurried Southern Trips,” which Porter co-wrote with Parton. It’s the tale of a bus driver who seems to know the life stories of all his passengers — unwed mothers, ex-cons, soldiers. “And the folks that ride got a reason to ride,” the narrator sings.
But the center of gravity of this album is “Committed to Parkview,” written for Wagoner by none other than Johnny Cash. Porter explains humbly in the spoken introduction that, while he’s been “a guest in a lot of great places in my lifetime,” he also was a “guest” at a psychiatric institution called Park View.
This isn’t the first time Wagoner has tackled this sad chapter in his life. One of the strangest things ever to come from Music Row is Wagoner’s 1972 song “The Rubber Room,” a stark musical memory of his Park View stay.
In “Committed to Parkview,” the narrator mainly concentrates on his fellow “guests.” It’s in Nashville, so there are lots of would-be singers and even the ex-drummer for some unnamed “superstar.”
“There’s a girl who cries above me, loud enough to wake the dead/They don’t know what she has taken that has scrambled up her head.” Porter sings with sympathy and relief that he’s been lucky all these years to avoid going back.
The hidden bonus songs are true treats of this album. Stuart convinced Porter to recite part of his old hit “Men With Broken Hearts” and, best of all, to sing Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle.” It’s pure hillbilly soul, a suitable final word for an album full of hillbilly soul.
*Coat of Many Colors, My Tennessee Mountain Home, and Jolene by Dolly Parton. Parton made some wonderful music with Wagoner in the ’60s and early ’70s, but these three albums, recently rereleased by Legacy, show there was way too much talent in the little gal from Locust Ridge, Tenn., to keep her under the thumb of any other musician — even a giant like Wagoner.
Parton, of course, became a megastar, a caricature, and a punch line for those who couldn’t see beyond her bustline. And, sadly, her music began to suffer by the late ’70s as she seemingly left behind the bluegrass-informed sound represented on these albums.
But these three CDs, originally released between 1971 and 1974, show her at the peak of her songwriting. At her best — and these three albums might be her best — Parton’s songs are sentimental, sexy, and smart.
Most of the songs that made her reputation are here, including the title songs of the records plus “I Will Always Love You” (on Jolene). But there are lesser-known jewels too.
And though Wagoner frequently is portrayed as the villain trying to hold Parton back, one of the coolest tunes on Coat of Many Colors is a Bizarro World Wagoner song called “If I Lose My Mind,” which concerns the estranged wife of an abusive swinger. “He done things to me I couldn’t understand/He made me watch him love another woman/And he tried to make me love another man. ... I couldn’t stand his torture any longer/I was afraid of what I’d do if I stayed there.”
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