The wagonmaster

Country legend Porter Wagoner delivers a gem
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  June 4, 2007

GOTH: Wagoner’s brilliant new CD on Epitaph’s Anti- label is a calculated end-run around the country-music industry.

NASHVILLE — “Eleven Cent Cotton” is a great country song, a wry, catchy, energetic, swinging two-step that creates a tableau of the bygone rural South while bearing a relevant message about America’s working impoverished in its chorus hook: “Eleven-cent cotton and forty-cent meat/How in the world can a poor man eat?” But fans of the genre are unlikely to hear it on mainstream radio, because the country music industry wrote off its author, Porter Wagoner, some two decades ago.

“When I encounter those people” — the executives who run the big-time country music mill — “they usually say, ‘Oh, are you still around?’,” the 79-year-old giant of the genre remarks, chuckling a little and shaking his head.

But Wagoner is now serving notice to the music business that he’s not only present, but remains capable of making what’s likely to be the best country album of 2007. That would be Wagonmaster, his first secular album in seven years, on the Epitaph imprint Anti-. And it’s flat-out brilliant. It’s also a calculated end-run around the country music business, masterminded by producer/multi-instrumentalist Marty Stuart.

Stuart, like many musicians, was inspired by Wagoner’s syndicated TV show, which at the peak of its popularity in the 1960s had more than 3.5 million viewers. So Wagonmaster plays like that program, which introduced Dolly Parton and many other emerging stars. The CD starts with the title track, Wagoner’s theme song, and works through all of his specialties — stories about unbearable human anguish, double-edged joy, spiritual questing, upbeat instrumentals, and the kind of gospel recitations he learned from apprenticing with country legend Red Foley and listening carefully to the tent revival preachers who barnstormed through his hometown of West Plains, Missouri, nestled in the Ozarks near the Arkansas border.

So far, the video for “Committed to Parkview” — where a lean, spangle-suited Wagoner serves as narrator for a tour through a mental institution as stark as Old London’s Bedlam — has been getting the most attention. The song was written by Johnny Cash and inspired by both Cash’s and Wagoner’s time at the Nashville hospital (Wagoner briefly stayed at Parkview in 1965 to recover from exhaustion). Although the Cash factor is a magnet, the album’s best songs are Wagoner’s own, such as “Be a Little Quieter,” about a lost lover whose presence haunts the singer, the jaunty “Eleven Cent Cotton,” and the painfully yearning “The Agony of Waiting,” where weeping pedal steel and moaning fiddle — longtime trademarks of Wagoner’s best honky-tonkers — play ghostly harmony to his time-weathered-but-still-resonant singing. As Wagoner admits, his voice was never pretty, but his plain delivery over a lightly swinging beat made his one of the most believable and recognizable sounds of country.

Considering Wagonmaster’s often-dark themes and Wagoner’s talent for telling stories frequently described as Southern Gothic, Stuart wisely placed the recording with the indie Anti- label, home to Tom Waits, among other notables. The goal is to take Wagoner to a new audience — the same roots-conscious listeners who appreciate Waits and Nick Cave, artists whose tales have a similar bent. And Anti- has done crossover miracle work recently with soul icons Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette, two artists who’d been similarly spurned by the biz.

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