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REVIEW: Porter Wagoner, THE WAGONMASTER

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ed_king.thumbnail.jpgBY ED KING ROCK CONNOISSEUR My in-laws live in a rural part of Pennsylvania. They’re not what I’d call “country folk,” but they live around more country folk than I ever met growing up in Port Richmond. Driving up their street, I always appreciate that ranch house with shutters in the shape of fiddles surrounded by musical notes. “That’s gotta be one serious country fan’s home!” I’d think to myself, but never shared the thought with anyone but my wife. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, my father-in-law said, “Let’s take a walk. I want you to meet a neighbor. He’s a music fan like you. He’s got a lot of old albums for sale in his basement that I thought you might like.”

How sweet of my father-in-law! Little did he know I grew up associating country music with Hee-Haw and The Eagles, not liking the show nor the band, but in the last few years, I’d grown to the point where I now respected all musicians and music fans as brothers-in-arms, (OK, everyone but the pony-tailed fusion fans, I STILL hateporterwagonercover.jpg those guys). I was game for meeting the man with the fiddle-shaped shutters.

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Turns out this older gentleman was a former country music DJ and promoter. As I flipped through bins of old records that, sadly, meant almost nothing to me, he told me tales of having booked the likes of a young Willie Nelson at a town fair in Central PA. “He was smokin’ those funny cigarettes the whole weekend. I didn’t know what he was smoking!” His stories were light and, although 30 to 40 years old, retained a music lover’s enthusiasm and faith. Every few records through the stack he’d ask me if I wanted buy this one or that one. He’d tell me some tidbit about the artist’s contribution to the country music canon, but all I could see was a Brylcreem-wearing square in a bad suit. I couldn’t get my rock-and-roll mind around any of these albums. One artist looked goofier than the next.

My father-in-law also looked over my shoulder with anticipation, hoping I’d leave with something, anything that would help him better understand what motivates us music cats of all ages and genres. The heat was on, a transaction needed to be completed, so I bought a couple of Charlie Rich albums and listened to a few more stories about the likes of Porter Wagoner and other well-respected artists I knew so little about.

That was a few years ago, and to say I’ve learned a whole lot more about country music would be a lie, but I do know more about what I do and don’t like. Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member Porter Wagoner, the man so crucial to Dolly Parton’s development (as an artist, wiseass!) that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” about him, has a new album called Wagonmaster out on the very cool and artist-friendly Anti- label. By all accounts, Wagoner is a frail and very old man these days, but you wouldn’t know that from his strong, confident vocals, or the album’s down-to-earth production, or for that matter, his July 24th gig opening for White porterwagondolly.jpgStripes and Grinderman at Madison Square Garden.

The production and backing is courtesy of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. I like it when country music sounds like it was played live by old friends in a simple room with well-worn instruments. Wagonmaster has this feel in spades, and Wagoner’s plainspoken delivery on songs like “Be a Little Quieter,” “A Place to Hang My Hat,” and “A Fool Like Me” display all the enthusiasm and faith of my friend with the fiddle-shaped shutters. The song most likely to garner serious ink is “Committed to Parkview”, which was written for Wagoner by his friend Johnny Cash and never recorded [by Wagoner] until now. Beginning with one of many spoken-word introductions on the album, as if Wagoner can’t get the old television variety show host out of his system, a verse slowly develops into an underneath-the-bottle, or whatever, report from a real-life sanitarium where both Wagoner and Cash spent some time. Unlike the sort of harrowing approach one would expect from Cash performing this song, however, Wagoner underplays the story with the sort of ease that I imagine has made fans feel comfortable dropping in on his treasure trove basement of country music riches lo these many years.

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9 Responses to “REVIEW: Porter Wagoner, THE WAGONMASTER”

  1. Dan Says:

    “Committed to Parkview” was released on the Highwaymen’s 1986 LP, featuring Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Also, probably best not to have writers who admit they know nothing about country music reviewing country music albums.

  2. KingEd Says:

    Thanks for the clarifcation, Dan. I’d like to hear more about why it’s best not to have writers like myself, who admit to not knowing about country music, review country albums. As a lover of music and a curious and open-minded sort, would you rather I shamefully hide my ignorance and cut and paste All Music Guide blurbs and 1-sheet material around meaningless platitudes? I gave the album and the review my best. I don’t think I would have liked it any more or less had I known the man’s 1960s b-sides.

  3. tom Says:

    KingEd, you didn’t give this your “best”. You gave it your “self”. Read other reviews by “KingEd” and you will see that he always talks more about himself than the album he is reviewing. We do not care about your life! This review tells us almost nothing about “Wagonmaster”. The last paragraph is the start of an informative review but it’s very general. And that’s all there is. The rest does not help me. I want details about the music you review!! Write an autobiography if you want to talk about yourself.

  4. Dan Says:

    It’s not that I don’t want a curious and open-minded writer like yourself to review country albums, KingEd, it’s just that when you say that all you saw in that old man’s music collection were “Brylcreem-wearing squares in bad suits,” I get the feeling you’re not taking any of this seriously.

  5. Th'Editrix Says:

    Dan, first, thanks for the correction on the album. Second, I see the larger point you’re making — and I tend to agree with you in some instances — but in Ed’s review, I saw a situation where music breaks through a person’s “Brylcreem-wearing squares” attitude toward country music in general, which is a good thing. As for having someone who admittedly doesn’t know a lot about country music reviewing a country record, that’s like saying someone who never committed a felony shouldn’t be writing about crime.

  6. KingEd Says:

    I see what you were thinking, Dan. I was taking it seriously. If I wanted to write about one more album made by a Brylcreem-wearing square, I could have been an asshole and done so easliy. I felt it necessary to work through my hang-ups and hear what was actually playing, which was much better than I could initially get my head around. If the rest of the review that led up to the bit Tom didn’t like didn’t help him, I hope it helped someone else.

  7. Dan Says:

    After re-reading your review, KingEd, I see that your’s was more of a story about coming to appreciate music you had previously dismissed. That’s a good thing, as Th’Editrix said. For very old country music that really was played live on old instruments by folks in a simple room, check out venerablemusic.com.

  8. Phawker » Blog Archive » HEAR YE: Porter Wagoner The Wagonmaster Says:

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