Wild Countryman

This appeared in the Los Angeles City Beat - June 14, 2007

When Marty Stuart joked on the Safari Sam’s stage last Sunday night that Lankershim Boulevard should be renamed Porter Wagoner Boulevard, he was probably making a reference to the old North Hollywood location of Nudie’s Western Wear. Wagoner – who was fronting Stuart’s band the Fabulous Superlatives in support of his new album Wagonmaster – is virtually synonymous with the bespangled glitz purveyed by the late country tailor. At his L.A. gig, he took the stage in a glittering cerulean jacket with matching tie.

It was always hard for me to see past those insane Nudie suits, despite Wagoner’s status as one of country’s biggest stars. From the ’50s into the ’80s, he cut 60 chart records on his own, and (pardon the phrase) racked up another 21 with his buxom protégée Dolly Parton. But, even after I started listening to country seriously, I couldn’t get beyond Porter’s golden pompadour, gaudy togs, and countrypolitan production values.

I credit the Australian label Omni for rekindling my interest in Wagoner. The imprint’s 2006 compilation The Rubber Room brought together 29 tracks demonstrating that the Missouri-born singer-songwriter was a covert country extremist. Comprising mainly non-hit album tracks, the album brought together a batch of beautifully honed songs about infidelity, murder, madness, alcoholism, and death. Wagoner’s well-known hit “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a condemned convict’s bitterly nostalgic dream, was just the tip of the creative iceberg. I just hadn’t dug deep enough.

The Rubber Room made me eager for Wagonmaster, which was produced by hardcore traditionalist Stuart for Epitaph’s Anti- imprint, known for reigniting the careers of Merle Haggard and Solomon Burke. Backed by Stuart’s tight, virtuosic quartet and some hired guns including MVP Stuart Duncan, Wagoner acquits himself well, though the 80-year-old performer is clearly still somewhat enfeebled from the aneurysm he suffered last year. But the playing is spry, and Wagoner knows his way around honky-tonkers, which predominate in the repertoire. The unquestioned highlight of the album is the dark “Committed to Parkview,” written years ago by Johnny Cash and only recently unearthed by Stuart – complete with opening recitation, it’s typically bleak Wagoner material, an up-to-the-minute replay of his classic loony-bin narrative “The Rubber Room.”

The packed Safari Sam’s audience was ready for some Porter, and they gave him a hero’s welcome after a too-brief mini-set by the Fabulous Superlatives, which featured the still-prodigious Stuart on mandolin, dizzying Kenny Vaughan on guitar, thrilling tenor Harry Stinson on snare drum, and Brian Glenn on upright bass. (The self-effacing Stuart, who sports an anachronistic, graying thatched mullet, didn’t even mention his own new album, the Superlatone/Hip-O duets compilation Compadres.) Stuart’s band, one of the best in any genre, should not be missed on their own – they blitzed through a six-song blast of blues, gospel, rockabilly, and country with effortless skill.

Sometimes picking an acoustic guitar, Wagoner performed seated, frequently consulting lyrics on a music stand at his elbow. He fumbled during performances of “Committed to Parkview,” “The Agony of Waiting,” and “My Many Hurried Southern Trips,” but these breakdowns only exhorted the audience to cheer him on loudly. It was a love feast, and Wagoner seemed heartened by the fervent response.

One couldn’t have asked for much more from the night’s repertoire. In nearly an hour on stage, Wagoner rolled out some of his huge hits – “A Satisfied Mind,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “I’ll Go Down Swinging” – and, to the crowd’s delight, essayed Hank Williams’s “Luke the Drifter” recitations “Men with Broken Hearts” and “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw.”

The show’s astonishing highlights came in the most perverse material – the still-crazed “The Rubber Room” and Bill Anderson’s agonizing “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand” and murderous “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” In those numbers, you heard Porter Wagoner at his greatest – a brilliant secret agent of the deep, sick, wild country blues.

By Chris Morris

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