A Satisfying Evening With Porter Wagoner

This appeared in the Los Angeles Times - June 12, 2007

When country artist Porter Wagoner scored a 1955 hit with "A Satisfied Mind" — a reminder that contentment comes from within — his long career was just beginning. With his sparkling Nudie suits and spiffy blond pompadour, he became a star, thanks to many country and gospel hits and his long-running syndicated TV show, which introduced Dolly Parton, his frequent duet partner, to a wider audience.

Now the Missouri-born "Thin Man From West Plains" is nearly 80. He recently celebrated 50 years with the Grand Ole Opry. Yet he has a new album, Wagonmaster, on local indie label Anti-, and he'll open for the White Stripes next month at Madison Square Garden.

So when he performed "A Satisfied Mind" on Sunday at Safari Sam's, still dapper in a flashy blue suit, it was an extraordinary moment of fulfillment for a musician who's found new relevance by staying true to himself.

Seated with his acoustic guitar in the packed club, the easygoing Wagoner reminisced and paid homage to such heroes as Hank Williams during his lively hourlong set, deftly supported by "Wagonmaster" producer Marty Stuart and his band the Fabulous Superlatives, featuring upright bassist Brian Glenn, snare drummer Harry Stinson and guitarist Kenny Vaughan. They brought the casual camaraderie of "The Porter Wagoner Show" into the room, gleefully playing off one another and laughing at mistakes, which mostly consisted of Wagoner sometimes forgetting words and searching for his place on the lyric sheets.

Wagoner's genteel demeanor contrasted with the often dire nature of his songs about love unrequited and love gone wrong, hearts shattered and never mended, prisoners desperate for one more breath of freedom. It's the classic dichotomy of country music: Impeccable manners and moral ideals on the surface, a swamp of messy humanity underneath. The effect was most surreal during the insanity double-header of the spooky, blues-tinged classic "Rubber Room" and the "Wagonmaster" track "Committed to Parkview," a chilling Johnny Cash composition about being in a mental hospital.

Tunes from the new album, including the deceptively bright "Be a Little Quieter" and the tragic "Albert Erving," shared the same mix of often self-deprecating humor and painfully macabre twists of such vintage material as the poignant death-row daydream "Green, Green Grass of Home" and murder ballad "The Cold Hard Facts of Life." The irony was more cautionary in "Men With Broken Hearts" and "Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw," but Wagoner's calmly authoritative, worn baritone gave weight even to the latter's corny tale of a "loose woman" sacrificing herself to save a neighbor's child, despite the child's mother's disdain.

During his opening half-hour set, Stuart and his band harmonized a cappella with astonishing sweetness and precision on the gospel tune "Angels Rock Me to Sleep." Surprisingly, Wagoner himself offered no spirit-cleansers, but no matter. His performance was satisfying enough.

By Natalie Nichols

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