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Porter Wagoner: Back in the Saddle Again

{mosimage}It may seem odd that country singer Porter Wagoner, who has built a career on graphic examinations of matters of temperance, social morality and spiritual rectitude, dispenses his observations while sporting the gaudiest of sequin-and-rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suits. When hosting a segment at the Grand Ole Opry, where he has regularly appeared for the past 50 years, Wagoner is abrim with corny fan accommodation: His glittering jackets have “Hi!” stitched a foot tall into the lining, which he holds open whenever an audience member prepares to snap his photograph. Yet this cheerful showman frequently launches into songs and recitations of the most somber and severe nature, becoming the knife-wielding cuckold of “Cold Hard Facts of Life,” touring the sticky red asphalt of “The Carroll County Accident” or relating the woeful, alcoholic miseries of “Skid Row Joe,” and the paradoxical clash of high-flash threads and low, brooding philosophy rate Wagoner as one of the Opry’s most compelling and dramatic figures.

He has always entwined country music’s most archaic, traditional elements with the stark, neon realism of honky-tonk and, in that sense, is one of the few country artists who have not merely taken up but extended the groundbreaking perspective introduced by Hank Williams (and Hank’s grim, airwave alter ego Luke the Drifter). Recognizing wrong, assigning blame and paying the price are Porter’s meat, and he chews through the why and how of human error with a discerning, sensitive relish that has both distinguished and increasingly distanced him from the thematic drift of mainstream country.

On his new CD, The Wagonmaster (Anti), Porter exploits that shadowy territory with all the crafty wiles in his well-stocked trick bag, and also very deftly works around the limitations 80 years of not-so-easy living have visited upon his pipes. With the eager-beaver stewardship of ultra-fan and producer-musician Marty Stuart (and, it must be stated, liner notes written by myself), The Wagonmaster captures the Missouri-born singer at a critical twilight point, and Wagoner has made the most of it, steaming through a set that bristles with characteristic subjects: lunacy (“Be a Little Quieter”), poverty (“Eleven Cent Cotton”), exultant faith (“Place to Hang My Hat”), repudiation of the devil (“Satan’s River”), offbeat character studies (“Albert Erving”), even classic narrative recitations (“Brother Harold Dee,” and a partial bonus treatment of Williams’ “Men With Broken Hearts”).

Bookended by Stuart’s custom-built, it’s-showtime-folks intro-outros (inspired by his youthful days gassing on Wagoner’s TV show), and delivered with solid, straight-up country accompaniment by Stuart’s Superlatives band, the energy and range of the album — bright, ambitious, invigorating — are damn impressive. By the time you get to “Committed to Parkview,” the stunning centerpiece specifically penned for Porter by Johnny Cash, with its cell-by-padded-cell tour of the Nashville nut house — where, as Wagoner’s spoken-word introduction reminds us, both he and Cash were once “guests” — the effect is almost overwhelming. By conjuring Dolly Parton, with a version of her lovely “Many Hurried Southern Trips,” Wagoner also acknowledges the complex, intense and occasionally adversarial relationship that arose after he made her a regular (and a household word in the South) on his television show in the mid-1960s, a move that adds even more bittersweet spirit to The Wagonmaster’s far-reaching scope.

While not a certifiable masterpiece (get a load of “Hotwired,” a novelty romp of glaring fault), it’s easily the best record he’s done in years (his late-’90s indie Unplugged album was a crushing disappointment for Wagoner-watchers), and the fact that Marty Stuart managed to capture it at all is near-miraculous. In 2006, as they were getting ready to record, Wagoner underwent emergency surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm — serious shit for an old dude like Porter, but he was at home in less than a week and in the studio not long after that. Wagoner possesses an almost supernatural resilience and drive, and his sheer force echoes throughout The Wagonmaster, a first-rate album that no one expected him to be able to pull off. “Porter almost died last summer,” Stuart says, “but he came in well pre­pared and we cut it in just three days.”

PORTER WAGONER | The Wagonmaster | Anti

Porter Wagoner and Marty Stuart appear at Safari Sam’s, Sun., June 10, 5:30 p.m.

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