PORTER WAGONER Wagonmaster (Anti/Epitaph) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
From the moment word got out that Porter Wagoner was going into the studio with long-time fan Marty Stuart to record a new album of the country legend's own compositions in the mould of his early 60s jukebox classics, there was talk of his Wagonmaster debut for the Anti label being a "comeback album."
Anti has recently helped reinvigorate the careers of Solomon Burke, Merle Haggard and Bettye LaVette, and even though the Grand Ole Opry star with the most fabulously blinged-out stagewear has never stopped performing or quit recording and releasing his music, Wagoner hasn't enjoyed much spotlight time lately.
Then, just as he was about to roll tape with Stuart, the 79-year-old Wagoner was rushed to the hospital with a kidney aneurism.
"It's the sort of thing that not everyone survives, so it was a very serious operation that left me laid up for three months," recalls Wagoner from his Nashville office. "After I got out of the hospital, we began talking a lot more seriously about making the album.
"Marty told me he'd been a fan of mine since he was a little boy watching my television show. What he most admired, he said, was that when I came to Nashville, instead of looking for a style to adopt, I brought my own with me. He wanted to produce a record with me that would bring back some of the sound and style of my earlier work."
To Stuart's credit, he didn't try to sweeten things up. Unlike most happy-sappy country music made today, Wagoner's songs don't usually have Hollywood-type endings, just the unpleasant truth that bad things happen to good people. So those who leave their children alone to go boozing can expect the fire truck speeding past them to be heading to their own home address, and men like Albert Erving who live a painful, solitary existence are bound to die alone without ever having held a woman or a child.
"Almost every song I wrote for the album is a true story based on something that happened or on somebody's life. They've always been good sellers in the past, maybe because I'm one of the few people who does those songs from the darker side of life."
One chilling number in particular that's getting attention is Committed To Parkview, which was written by Johnny Cash with Wagoner in mind. No doubt Cash saw it as an overdue follow-up to Wagoner's creepy cult classic, Rubber Room, and passed along a cassette demo to Stuart for Wagoner's consideration whenever they finally got around to recording their much-discussed project.
"Johnny had been to Parkview, and he knew that I had been there one time, too, back in the late 60s when I was suffering from stress following a string of 200 one-nighters. The way Johnny wrote it is pretty much the way the place was, and he gave the tape to Marty saying, 'Give this to Porter - he loves this kind of song and he'll do it real well.'
"As soon as Marty got home, he put it in a safe place and forgot all about it until he needed it, and then, of course, he couldn't remember where it was. He kept saying, 'I know it's there somewhere,' so I told him, 'Marty, it's time to stop talking and start finding!' His secretary told me he turned that whole end of town upside down searching for it until he finally found the thing.
"When he played it for me, I knew right away it was a great song. It's typical Johnny Cash style - the song is just so beautifully put together. It's my favourite song on the album."
There's already been some discussion of a follow-up recording that may finally reunite Wagoner with his popular singing partner and former protege Dolly Parton. It was Wagoner Parton had in mind when she wrote I Will Always Love You at the time that their artistic relationship ended. Although there has been some legal drama between the two in the intervening years, Wagoner says that's all behind them now.
"Did you see Dolly sing I Will Always Love You to me for that Grand Ole Opry 50th-anniversary show back in May? We had a good cry after that. We're in good shape now. In fact, Dolly and I have always remained friends, it's just the attorneys representing us who have been at each other's throats for a while, but that's over with.
"Dolly and I have talked about doing another duets album, and we probably will in the next year or so. The reason our duets worked so well is because we thought a lot alike and we had a good harmony blend. We sounded like what you get when a brother and sister learn to sing with each other, rather than, say, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, who always sounded like two people singing solo together."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Porter Wagoner recalls his reaction to hearing Dolly Parton sin her song I Will Always Love You for the first time
Contrary to country music lore, Wagner says he wasn't angered by the news that Parton was leaving his popular televions variety show.