March 25, 2007


Under sequins, Porter Wagoner is a rebel
: His improbable return to Nashville at 79 after a dire health setback wasn't enough. Look who's found the indie crowd (Randy Lewis, March 25, 2007, LA Times)

PORTER WAGONER strides calmly to the microphone set center stage on the wood plank floor of the Grand Ole Opry here, pretty much the same way he has most every week since he was invited into country music's royal chamber 50 years ago.

As usual, he's dressed to thrill on this recent Friday night, in a royal-blue western suit embroidered with wagon wheels and rose blooms, all sparkling with sequins. The tips of the collar on his pale lavender shirt look to have been dipped in gleaming gold, and a dazzling sapphire-colored, triangular cut-glass neckpiece hides the top button. At his waist, a gold and silver National Wild Turkey Federation belt buckle big enough to catch radio waves from Jupiter.

Best of all, his boots. If, as they say in Texas, God is a cowboy, surely Wagoner this night has his boots, a dazzling gold pair with turquoise-colored cactus figures carved in, the toes and bootheels caked in jewels as if he'd stomped through a stable full of rhinestone horses.

At 79, Wagoner is the star most closely identified with the Opry -- the living and, thanks to a little emergency surgery last summer, still breathing personification of Nashville country tradition.

"This is my second weekend back," Wagoner says in his no-hurry-folks Missouri drawl backstage a few minutes before going on. He's referring to his seven-month layoff from the Opry after suffering a near-fatal aortic aneurysm last July. "It's so wonderful just to get out of the house. I didn't realize what being cooped up does.... I was so ready to come back to work."

Despite the old-time numbers he and mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley sing for the Opry audience -- they form a duo that's collectively older than the Civil War -- Wagoner's sights these days are set resolutely forward. He's got a new album coming in June, "Wagonmaster," his first secular studio album in seven years, produced by longtime fan and fellow musician Marty Stuart. It's reductive country and honky-tonk that's likely to give Wagoner some late-in-the-game career-appreciation props the way Rick Rubin's albums with Johnny Cash (Stuart's onetime boss) did.

Wagoner's album isn't as consistently stark, it just shares the vision of classic country music sung the old-school way: staring straight into the heart of human darkness. [...]

His always-ready-to-work ethic has helped keep him as long and lean at 79 as when he was 29. The big difference, besides a fuller face and the usual wrinkles and creases of age, is the hair. The flattop he wore into the '50s, and which morphed in the '60s into his signature blond pompadour, has given way to a meticulously groomed silver cotton candy-like 'do.

Despite his astonishing tenure at the Opry, which will celebrate his half-century there with a May 19 all-star show, Wagoner never made it into country's top echelon of artists with the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones or Dolly Parton.

Parton, in fact, launched her career after Wagoner hired her in 1967 and featured her every week on "The Porter Wagoner Show," the first nationally syndicated country music TV series, one that ran for two decades and is reruns today on the RFD cable channel.

The team of Wagoner and Parton is second in the annals of country duet partners only to George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Their relationship rose to similar musical heights and sank to personal lows after her career skyrocketed in the '70s, taking her right past him and into the top rank of country stardom, at the same time his was falling back to Earth.

It was the stuff of a great country song, especially when the mentor sued his former prot-g- in 1979, feeling slighted and underappreciated once she got a taste of fame and fortune. Parton, meanwhile, felt stifled and exploited by the man who also served as her manager and shared in royalties of the songs she wrote, including "Coat of Many Colors" and "I Will Always Love You," a send-off that some have suggested was written with Wagoner in mind.

They settled the suit -- he got to record with her again at the peak of her pop-crossover success in the early-'80s; she regained ownership of her song catalog, one of the strongest in country music. And despite a period of bitterness, they returned to cordial relations as the years rolled by.

In recent years, Wagoner, who always held the respect of mainstream fans, has won over a lot of today's country cognoscenti for the plain-spoken credibility he typically brought to tightly crafted narratives full of melodramatic, hyper-emotional plot twists.

He's also won points for his maverick sensibility, no more evident than when he funked up the Opry in 1979 after persuading James Brown to play there.

Like the films of Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, his songs explore the extremes to which characters are often pushed, challenging those who take them in to ponder how far from reality they really are. Yet there's no question how many light years separate Wagoner's brand of country from today's soccer-mom music by the likes of Rascal Flatts.

In "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," a Bill Anderson song that Wagoner took to No. 2 in 1967, a hapless fellow returns a day early from a business trip to find his wife with another man. After confronting the two with a knife -- the tragic denouement is assumed rather than detailed -- he dispassionately sings, "I guess I'll go to hell or I'll rot here in this cell/But who taught who the cold hard facts of life?"

In 1971 he sang of life in "The Rubber Room," a song he wrote about losing one's grasp on sanity, a theme that also crops up on the new album with "Committed to Parkview," a sobering look at life in a mental institution that Johnny Cash wrote in the '70s, at least in part with Wagoner in mind because both singers had spent time in the Nashville hospital by that name. Wagoner was admitted in 1965 for exhaustion because of his extensive touring schedule.

'60s country star Porter Wagoner is a Renaissance man: : He always has been a flashy entertainer, though his music has had its macabre moments. (Brian Mansfield, 3/24/07 USA TODAY)

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2007 12:00 AM
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