Wagoner Takes A Victory Lap

This appeared in The Wall Street Journal - July 24, 2007

Porter Wagoner has been, very arguably, the most significant, surprising, emotionally penetrating country music performer of the past 50 years who's nevertheless remained a cipher, or even a rhinestone-festooned comic caricature, to audiences outside of the stone country core. The Country Hall of Famer looks at that career path, so different from the crossover pop moves of his late friend Johnny Cash and protégée Dolly Parton, with the same observant frankness that marked his hit renditions of such lasting, unblinking ballads as "Satisfied Mind," "Green Green Grass of Home" and the tellingly titled "The Cold Hard Facts of Life."

"I just never had the desire to go beyond that," Mr. Wagoner said in a recent conversation here, "just to be a good country singer and a good country songwriter. You know, Marty told me, 'Porter, the other artists on the Grand Ole Opry came here to learn how to play the music on there; you're a farm boy from Missouri that knew how to sing when you came here, brought your style with you -- and you've never varied; you've kept that same feeling in your voice, that sincerity and drive.' And I said, 'Marty, I'd never thought of it that way -- but really, that is what I did.'"

Marty is Marty Stuart, at age 49 a veteran country star in his own right and the producer of Wagonmaster, the just-released new CD on the indie rock-oriented Anti-label. The new recording captures the 79-year-old Mr. Wagoner's decisive return to twangy -- sometimes even spookily twangy -- sounds, in the style of his '50s and '60s band for which the album is named, and to biting hard-country songs, many of them self-penned.

In recent decades, Mr. Wagoner had largely stuck to gospel music and his regular Opry hosting duties, as his mix of traditional country backup, impeccably phrased singing and recitations, and far-from-sunny themes seemed so far removed from the stuff of contemporary country hit-making.

"Porter's the last man standing of the old cloth, from the old Hank Williams era," Mr. Stuart says. "My job was to put him back in touch with his classic sound, to get his pompadour up in there again, and to get a guitar back around his neck. Those three things are accomplished; now I also get to see him take a victory lap."

That "lap," which comes on the heels of a slow but real recovery from an aneurysm that nearly killed Mr. Wagoner a little over a year ago, has already included the celebration of his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. The nationally broadcast show featured a rare reunion with Dolly Parton, with whom Porter had a half-dozen Top 10 duets in the mid-to-late '60s. Dolly sang her smash hit "I Will Always Love You" -- originally written as a farewell to Mr. Wagoner as she left his innovative, hundred-market syndicated TV show -- directly to him, face to face, for the first time, with damp eyes all around.

People are getting to see Mr. Wagoner well beyond the Opry now. He recently opened in Los Angeles for indie rock favorite Neko Case. And Porter will open tonight for rockers the White Stripes at a show at Madison Square Garden, no less; he'll be backed by Marty and his gifted, remarkably flexible band, the Fabulous Superlatives.

The very sorts of songs that urban hipsters were inclined to deride as Gothic melodrama or maudlin in the '60s seem daring and edgy and right for the same sort of audience today. The harrowing single and video from Wagonmaster is "Committed to Parkview," written by Johnny Cash, and first recommended by him for Porter in 1981 -- by which time both sometimes troubled men had, in fact, been committed at different points to the Nashville psychiatric hospital portrayed. Mr. Wagoner has been writing more than a few new songs in that vein himself lately.

"It gets some of the things out of my system that I have in there," he says with a laugh.

Dark tinge be damned, Messrs. Wagoner and Stuart share a bright flamboyance in performance style, and a love of the flashy stage suits designed by Nudie Cohen and his successor, Manuel. As the Wagonmaster CD was released, Mr. Stuart's deep private collection of country memorabilia -- including some of the historic stage gear worn by Porter, Rose Maddox, the Staple Singers and Carl Perkins -- was being put on display in Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart's American Musical Odyssey, an extraordinary exhibition at Nashville's Tennessee State Museum. It runs, free of charge, through November 11.

Stunning, previously unseen artifacts -- Jimmie Rodgers's satchel, comic notes from Johnny Cash, Elvis's sweater, Patsy Cline's traveling case, a Carter Family report card -- mingle with handwritten song lyrics and letters from everyone from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan, historic musical instruments, and an array of Marty's celebrated portrait photography.

The exhibition (like his new career-spanning duets CD, "Compadres") is essentially organized around Mr. Stuart's own musical life: a childhood in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he was exposed to hillbilly, African-American and Choctaw culture; a stint playing bluegrass mandolin with Lester Flatt at age 12; time in Cash's band; and his chart-topping years as a hillbilly rocker.

Mr. Stuart's mission to gather and preserve these now-priceless artifacts began when they were often greatly undervalued, and found abandoned in second-hand stores and pawn shops. "I started to see that as a cultural sin," Mr. Stuart noted, as we watched some of the last items being put into place before the exhibit's opening. "I thought, maybe the world doesn't know about country music as a living, breathing art form and culture right now, but Porter Wagoner's boots are just as important as the Who's costumes people have preserved; Johnny Cash's set-list is just as important as John Lennon's lyrics."

Marty Stuart, like his musical partner Porter Wagoner, is interested these days not just in preservation of the old sounds, the old visuals from places he's been, but in bringing them back in shape -- good to go for another round. His effort appears to be working.

By Barry Mazor

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