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Music Review: Porter Wagoner – Wagonmaster

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79 year old Porter Wagoner has a fine new album, Wagonmaster. It's produced by Marty Stuart, an excellent new addition to Porter Wagoner's illustrious catalog. Frankly, my expectations for him this late in the game were pretty low, but this is actually, surprisingly enough, an outstanding record. I've been listening to it for a month. It started out good with me, and has only gotten better with repeated listening.

I've got at least four or five favorites here, but I might start with "Satan's River," the closing track. For starters, this moralistic country waltz may be the most purely catchy tune on the album. A lot of these songs have good visual images in the lyrics, and I especially like the "big yachts sailing on the warm smooth tide." I've found myself repeatedly singing this song acapella walking the hills, or doing dishes and such.

I also have to give a good shout out to "Be a Little Quieter." This opening track is a good vintage style Porter jam, with ever lovin' Buck Trent and the boys dressing this up with good old fashioned fiddle and steel, and basic honky-tonk country rhythm. Then there's poor bedeviled Porter himself, still hearing the long gone ex rattling the pots and pans in his imagination.


Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton photo
Most of these songs are quite good, and Porter wrote or co-wrote all but three of the songs, with a couple of instrumental bits credited to Stuart. Also, he performs a couple of Hank Williams songs in the extended bonus track chatting with Stuart. I've been a bit bedeviled figuring out just when he wrote some of these, though.

"Albert Erving" is a haunting song about a lonely old man he knew in childhood. From his description of having written a song about him 25 years later, that would seem to make it a 40 year old song. "My Many Hurried Southern Trips" was co-written with Dolly Parton somewhere in the 1970s. This song details a bus driver's observations of people in trouble, most strikingly an unwed pregnant woman.

Then again though, the details of when these songs were written aren't really that important. I'm a pretty fair Porter fan, and I'd never heard any of these songs. Presumably that Dolly song was recorded and buried on an album in their vast back catalogs. They're new to me though, so they'll likely be new songs to you as well.

One of several centerpieces is "Committed to Parkview." Johnny Cash wrote this song some 25 years ago on learning that he and Porter had both spent time in the same Nashville nuthouse. Cash apparently recorded it with the Highwaymen, but this is Porter's first recording. It's decent as a melody, but it's particularly striking as a lyric, with the catalogue of the torments of the doomed.

Johnny was a legendarily wild character, whereas Porter Wagoner on the other hand was seen more as the glad handing MC with the corny vaudevillian TV show and the infamous gaudy studded nudie suits. However, in retrospect Porter clearly seems the more disturbed. Johnny might get locked up for being too wild, but Porter's the one who sounded like he was really out of his tree. "The Rubber Room" is the obvious example for that, but you could find a number of other recordings that are right out there. Check out "The First Mrs Jones" for another prime example of psycho Porter.

This recording particularly interests me as a point of comparison between Porter and Johnny. "Committed to Parkview" sounds distinctly like Porter rather than Johnny. I'm sure that Johnny could sell this good song, but there's a special twist of demented despair that's pure Porter. There's no way Johnny Cash could have spun this kind of psycho as effectively as Porter Wagoner.

To say one somewhat bad thing about the album, Porter's voice has deteriorated with age – but even that's not entirely a bad thing. He can still pretty effectively carry a tune, and the age and dryness in his voice seem to be a distinct advantage with some of this material. That effect certainly helps sell the hopeless, helpless despair of the Parkview song.

It is also helpful with "Brother Harold Dee." This is one of those old fashioned recitation numbers, a classic Porter Wagoner specialty. He's really good with these dramatic little morality plays, and this story of a freaky long haired son rejected by his upstanding middle class family is an excellent example. This kind of thing just naturally sounds more credible from an old man's mouth.

There's maybe just one place, though, where age works distinctly against him as a performer. "Hotwired" was written by Shawn Camp, with whose work I'm not otherwise familiar. This may be the best one song on the album. I might describe it as rockabilly, though that might be more a general spiritual comparison rather than a specific musical style. In any case, it's an outstanding song working from a particularly good metaphor about an electrifying gal who just can't seem to stop hotwiring everything in site – including the narrator's heart, naturally. It's an outstanding song and a perfectly good arrangement, but there's just no way 79 year old Porter can vocally do justice to the electrical sexual sentiments of the song. I'd really like to hear the Kings of Leon take a swing at this. The purveyors of "Holy Roller Novacaine" could really sell this bad boy.

Overall, this is an excellent album. Now, if you don't have any Porter Wagoner records – well, first of all you're missing out. You should hunt down a hits album first before this, naturally. But after that, and if you're any kind of Porter fan, you definitely should hear this fine album.

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  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    In fairness to Porter, Johnny Cash’s voice sounded a bit weathered in his latter years too. But to me that always added character to the songs, and gravity to the experience conveyed in the lyrics — even though in Cash’s case the lyrics weren’t always his own. There was just the sense of so much life having been lived with the way Cash interpeted the songs he sang.

    I haven’t actually heard this record, but I’m sure thats equally true with Porter. Based on this review, I sure intend to find out.

    -Glen

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Glen, I’m sure you’ll dig this the most. Also, anyone who digs real country music – not this Garth Brooks/Dixie Chicks crap – will likely be well pleased with this.

    I’ll note that this would also be a really good gift item for an old country music loving grandpa or a crazy old uncle.

    The deterioration of Porter or Johnny’s voice with age works almost as much for as against them. They lose some technically, but like you said, get a new artistic effect from it.

  • JC Mosquito

    If Marty Stuart produced it, you can bet it’s authentic & done out a sense of reverence. Marty & his band the Fabulous Superlatives are the last of the true hillbilly cats left – they can play bluegrass as well as they play the twang thang.