'60s Country Star Porter Wagoner Is A Renaissance Man

This appeared in USA Today - January 11, 2007

For most of the '60s, Porter Wagoner was arguably the most recognizable star in country music. Marty Stuart is convinced that the 79-year-old singer — known as much for his flashy spangled and rhinestone-studded stage wear as for such hits as "A Satisfied Mind" and "Green, Green Grass of Home" — is on the verge of having a whole new generation discover him.

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"I started noticing that Annie Leibovitz was taking his picture; he was in Vanity Fair," says Stuart, a fellow performer who learned many lessons in showmanship as a child by watching Wagoner's syndicated television show. "He's a folk-art subject. He's always on the list of coolest album covers."

Earlier this month in a Nashville studio, Stuart produced Wagoner's new album, Wagonmaster, due for release in May on the punk-oriented Anti- label. "I told him, 'You have no idea who and what loves you. The only thing you have to do is show up and be Porter Wagoner.' "

Wagoner and Stuart were ready to book studio time last summer, until Wagoner underwent emergency surgery for a life-threatening abdominal aneurysm on July 14.

"I called my son, Richard, at 3 o'clock in the morning and he got me to the hospital," Wagoner recalls. "My doctor says he's the one I need to give credit to, for getting me there in time."

Even though Wagoner hasn't had a hit on the radio in more than 20 years, he has stayed active, releasing two self-produced albums for Nashville's Gusto Records in 2006.

Wagonmaster includes some of Wagoner's recent songs as well as older tunes, including one written with Dolly Parton, whom he introduced through his TV show. Other songs are based on eccentrics he knew growing up in rural southern Missouri.

Stuart's band, the Fabulous Superlatives, form the core of the album's band. Fred Newell, Wagoner's current steel-guitar player, and banjo player Buck Trent, an integral part of Wagoner's band during his heyday, also appear throughout.

Perhaps the album's most notable song is the Johnny Cash-penned "Committed to Parkview," a 25-year-old tune about life in a Nashville health facility that often catered to country singers who needed to dry out or rest up. Cash gave the song to Stuart, who once played in his band, and asked him to forward it to Wagoner. When Stuart forgot, Cash recorded it in 1985 on the first Highwayman album (featuring Cash teamed with fellow icons Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson).

Stuart remembered the song when he and Wagoner began working together. He dug the demo out of a box of memorabilia and gave it to Wagoner.

"I didn't realize that Cash knew I had been there (Parkview), and I didn't know he was in there," Wagoner says. "It's a really good song, a typical Cash song. My worst problem was trying not to sound like Cash."

"Committed to Parkview" fits with other macabre numbers Wagoner has recorded throughout his career, such as his 1967 hit "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," about a man who fatally stabs his wife and her lover, and 1972's echo-heavy cult classic, "The Rubber Room."

The legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, who ran RCA's Nashville division for many of the years Wagoner recorded there, encouraged the singer's dark side. "When I wrote 'The Rubber Room,' he just flipped out," Wagoner recalls. He said, 'Country people won't like it, but there'll be a rock group (doing) that one day, and it'll be a giant song.' He said, 'There's a great market for that kind of stuff. If you don't have a market here, believe me, there will be one day.' And here we are. We've arrived."

Wagoner plans to return to the stage in 2007, to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and to tour with Stuart and his Superlatives.

"He's a remnant of that old cloth that so little is left of, from the Hank Williams era," Stuart says. "It's just a tiny remnant of that. But, man, is it a good one."

By Brian Mansfield

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