PORTER WAGONER > Wagonmaster

Porter Wagoner may be the most important singer and writer in country music of the past half century who has remained insufficiently gotten outside of hard country circles. He’s never seemed to worry too much about that, but this special, even historic new disc may well help improve that situation-right at the milestone of Wagoner’s 50th anniversary as a fine-spangled anchor and host at the Grand Ole Opry.Label: ANTI-
[RATING: 3.5]

Porter Wagoner may be the most important singer and writer in country music of the past half century who has remained insufficiently gotten outside of hard country circles. He’s never seemed to worry too much about that, but this special, even historic new disc may well help improve that situation-right at the milestone of Wagoner’s 50th anniversary as a fine-spangled anchor and host at the Grand Ole Opry.

Produced by Marty Stuart and featuring Stuart’s masterful band, The Fabulous Superlatives, Wagonmaster is at once a deliberate effort to return Porter to the classic lean country setting of his classic Wagonmasters band years of the ‘50s through ‘70s. It’s a bit of an audio stage show (song introduction patter which may or may not hold up through repeated listenings included), and a showcase for Wagoner’s ongoing songwriting. The latter has not fallen off one jot, proving as grounded in lyrical specificity and concept freshness as ever.

That Wagoner is appearing on this alternative rock-oriented label may surprise some, but there’s a logic to it. With a slew of edgy, risk-taking songs like “The Rubber Room” in his broad catalogue, it may be more natural to highlight the darker side of Porter than it was when the same was done with his old friend Johnny Cash-author of “Committed to Parkview,” one of the searing covers on this new collection, and a song Cash had suggested that Porter record. Wagoner has a way of making a song of faith and hope like “A Place to Hang My Hat” sound as harrowing as a “half-mad with unfulfilled love” song, like his strong new “The Agony of Waiting.”

No one will argue that the man’s voice, per se, is precisely that of the bouncy host of his innovative TV show 40 years back, but it’s beside the point; Wagoner is one of the great meaning-stressing readers of country songs-his own or others’. That’s why he remains one of the last masters of the spoken recitation, a true student of the mode of his original idol, Hank Williams, and why every haunted story here is sung to stick-and does.

Porter can still make a straight ahead upbeat shuffle downright scary when he wants to, like in “Be a Little Quieter,” which has a lost, dead love so present that she still rattles the dishware. Ghosts walk through this record and chains clang, but the shuffles still bounce and the hot breakdowns-somewhere between bluegrass and Buck-explode.

The breadth of the country territory Wagoner can handle, and clearly loves, is spelled out by the range of chosen covers. They range from “Hotwired” from Shawn Camp, arguably the most gifted young songwriter in Nashville today, to a version of the Depression-era medley “Eleven Cent Cotton/Take Me Back,” associated with old time Opry star Uncle Dave Macon.  Porter Wagoner is a key link in that long, exciting chain, and this record should help listeners hear that again.

 

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