Porter Wagoner got old early and he stayed that way, thank goodness.
At 30, the craggy-faced, painfully thin hillbilly looked and sounded like a man twice his age. His trembling, overly emotive baritone brought authenticity to a morose catalog of hard-luck ballads about asylum doors, barroom floors, and every kind of gut-wrenching, tear-shedding heartache a man could ever know. With hits like "Sorrow on the Rocks" and "Cold Hard Facts of Life," he repeatedly chronicled the short, treacherous journey from innocent disbelief to resigned disaffection. Even the glass-raising, break-out-the-bottle revelry of "Misery Loves Company" was framed as the hollow ritual of a man who has finally become comfortable with his numbness.
Although he's now 79 and sporting grayer hair and deeper wrinkles, Wagoner looks pretty much the same as he always has, and it's no overstatement to say that he sounds as good or better than ever. The only thing standing between Wagonmaster, his newest CD on the increasingly vital Anti- label, and total Wagonerian perfection, is the absence of a duet with his original singing partner, the fabulous, and largely forgotten, Norma Jean.
Although Wagoner covers a Johnny Cash song here, nobody should pick up Wagonmaster expecting cool, Cash-style covers of popular modern-rock songs. By the mid-1960s, Wagoner was already too old and set in his ways to learn new tricks. At a time when artists such as Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens were harmonizing with the rock-and-roll revolution and infusing traditional country music with urban grit and bluesy sophistication, Wagoner was running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
He crucified himself on a cross of gospel-inspired melodies, mid-tempo waltzes, and impossible sorrow, and for these unforgivable transgressions against modernity and the march of progress he was rewarded with 81 hit singles and a long-running television show.
Forever out of step with the times, he wore a gravity-defying pompadour 20 years after they'd gone out of style. He refused to abandon the spectacular rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suits that Willie, Waylon, and the rest of country's Outlaws turned into a symbol of everything that was ridiculous and wrong with Nashville pop. Wagoner's brand of honky-tonk was excessively maudlin and precariously balanced between heartfelt emotion and outlandish camp. And in purely visual terms, that line was fully breached every time the gangly singer stepped in front of a camera to sing "Someone I Used To Know" alongside his cartoonishly voluptuous, joyously trashy, and much younger duet partner, Dolly Parton.
Wagoner's ear for a soap-worthy storyline is still impeccable. His husky take on Cash's "Committed to Parkview" may be Wagonmaster's guiltiest (and gothiest) pleasure, though it's certainly no more deranged than "Be a Little Quieter," which finds a sleepless narrator politely telling his noisy memories to "keep it down." From the nostalgic rush of "11-Cent Cotton" to the impressionistic prose of "My Many Hurried Southern Trips," each of Wagonmaster's 17 tracks is stuffed with imagery as spare and searing as a Raymond Carver short story.
In recent years, the California-based Anti- label has become a refuge for fussy master craftsmen such as Tom Waits and a safe haven for seasoned artists such as Merle Haggard who want to make music the way they know how without some wet-behind-the-ears industry honcho telling them how to hip up. Marty Stuart, Wagonmaster's inestimably talented producer, has assembled a top-notch group of musicians who have wisely done nothing to bring Wagoner's sound into the 21st century. It's hard to imagine that that particular mission could have been accomplished at any other label.
Every fan of golden-age honky-tonk should hope and pray that George Jones got an advanced copy of his old friend's latest joint and that the old Possum knows how to take a not-so-subtle hint. It wouldn't hurt Ray Price to take a listen either. — Chris Davis