Wagonmaster Heads 'Em Up

Porter Wagoner moves with rare grace and heart-earned dignity

This appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal - August 11, 2007

Fans of vintage country music have been reveling in 1960s-era reruns of "The Porter Wagoner Show" on RFD-TV for the last couple of years. Wagoner, remembered for his spectacular Nudie suits and for introducing Dolly Parton to the world, graces every episode with a barn-dance number and a Bible-driven recitation ballad. It's beautiful stuff.

Against all odds Wagoner, 79, has now released 2007's finest country album. Wagonmaster finds one of Nashville's deepest thinkers still committed to exploring the long falls and sudden stops that come with being human, proving that age and experience may help soften the harsh landings but never prevent them.

Wagoner, country's first artist to experiment with concept albums, wrote the majority of Wagonmaster and largely concentrates on the price we pay for love and the costs of never loving. The brilliant "Albert Erving" is about a man who "never held a woman or child," while "Late Love of Mine" finds an alcoholic at the funeral of a woman he could never love as much as his wine.

On "Be a Little Quieter" and "The Agony of Waiting," Wagoner dissects the pain of solitude when it's the last thing you want. Johnny Cash's "Committed to Parkview," written after both men were treated for substance abuse at the Nashville facility, deals in a different kind of lonely: "There's a real fine country singer who has tried and tried and tried / They just brought him in this morning, an attempted suicide."

Marty Stuart, who has staged virtually a one-man campaign to preserve country music's heritage over the last couple of decades, produced the album with immense care and a real command of the classic Nashville aesthetic.

Wagoner's worn and weary voice anchors every song while the musicianship is an impeccable reflection of 1960s country, with one foot still in the holler and the other slowly inching toward the city. Carl Jackson's background vocals are the album's secret weapon, lifting many songs with a bluegrass-drenched passion, and longtime Wagoner sidekick Buck Trent lays down some sparkling electric banjo.

Stuart wrote a poem for the liner notes that describes Wagoner as "moving with the feel of his heart." That sums it up nicely, and Wagonmaster finds Wagoner moving with a rare grace and a hard-earned dignity.

By Jeffrey Lee Puckett

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