A Grateful Porter Wagoner Shines On His New Album

Producer Marty Stuart helps revive talents 'Opry' legend hasn't utilized in decades

This appeared in The Tennessean - July 8, 2007

Porter Wagoner got really scared before he finally felt safe.

The aneurysm nearly paralyzed him. He lost his sense of balance, and the doctors cut him wide open before sewing him back up. And the medicine they gave him was causing illusions. This was last summer, a frightful time for the Country Music Hall of Famer.

"I was real scared about it, and then I prayed a lot and I finally got to feeling OK, to where I wasn't afraid anymore," said Wagoner. "And that was a wonderful feeling. It was something I'd never felt before in my life. I got closer to God than I've ever been, and then I felt a safeness. It was like, 'OK, if I die, I'm alright.' "

Wagoner rested awhile, and then Marty Stuart kept calling him about doing an album that would put Wagoner's significance and musical legacy into some kind of perspective. Then Stuart started coming by Wagoner's house, bringing guitars and song ideas.

"We'd sit down in chairs, and he said, 'Anytime you feel tired, tell me and we'll stop,'" said Wagoner, 79. "We started out doing 30 minutes, then the next day it was 40 minutes, and we worked until we got up to an hour. My voice started getting stronger, and I started getting better."

Wagoner returns to form

The extent to which he got better can be heard on Wagonmaster, the Stuart-produced album that returns Wagoner to a form not heard from him in more than three decades.

"He's a cornerstone of our music," said Stuart, who succeeded in producing an album that reveals many of Wagoner's peculiar gifts. "Who Knows Right From Wrong" borrows from the sonic style of Wagoner's 1950's hit "Satisfied Mind." "Brother Harold Dee" is the next in a long line of classic Wagoner recitations, and "Hotwired" and "My Many Southern Trips" recall bits of Wagoner's up-tempo past such as "Company's Comin.' "

Stuart even encouraged Wagoner to revisit spooky themes of the sort that dominated his odd-duck Rubber Room album, one of the few psychedelic country experiments. To that end, Wagoner recorded "Committed To Parkview," a song Johnny Cash wrote and handed to Stuart, hoping Stuart would deliver it to Wagoner. He did just that, though the delivery came a quarter-century after Cash's hand-off. The song is about a man who has been committed to a mental institution; both Cash and Wagoner spent recovery time at Park View Hospital.

"I'd worked a lot of shows with Cash and seen him in a lot of different conditions, but I didn't know that he knew that I'd been in Park View," Wagoner said. "We were there at different times. I stayed there seven or eight weeks, after I'd worked 200 dates on the road one year and it zapped all my strength from me."

New album stirs things up

As was the case with late-life triumphs by Cash and Loretta Lynn, Wagonmaster is drawing glowing reviews and has brought its author renewed attention. As was also the case with those Cash and Lynn albums, Wagonmaster was released by a label based far from Nashville. In this case, Anti-Records, based in Los Angeles, is the company.

"Marty wanted to give everybody a shot at it in Nashville, but he said he didn't think it would happen here," Wagoner said. "I kind of knew that, too. I found out when Dolly (Parton) and I were together years ago that Nashville companies sometimes don't have the imagination for big things to happen. The labels here say, 'We'll try it and see what happens.' But nothing's going to happen much unless you get things stirred up."

Anti-Records has been doing a good deal of stirring, and Wagonmaster has been getting lots of out-of-town ink in publications such as the New York Times and Boston Globe. Wagoner's also opening a late July show for rock band The White Stripes at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, and he and Stuart recently played Joe's Pub, a venue that's akin to a Big Apple version of Nashville's Bluebird.

"The club was packed out, and Marty and I took two guitars and sat there on two stools," he said. "Man, it was an inspiration to me. You could hear a pin drop when we were doing a song, and when we were finished they'd just tear the house down, man. It really surprised me. But Marty said, 'I knew it was going to be like this. People love you, man.' "

Wagoner seems genuinely surprised that outside — read, "non-Opry" — audiences are lining up to praise him. He recounts a trip to the L.A.-based label in which the young employees all wanted pictures taken with him, and smiles when recalling that actor/director Billy Bob Thornton told Stuart, "I think Porter's so great that I get nervous around him. I keep talking like Donald Duck when he's in the room."

"I'm just so grateful, and feel so good about the fact that God let me live through that aneurysm," Wagoner said. "I guess I think he had some other things that he wanted me to do."

By Peter Cooper

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