HOLLYWOOD — The legend of Willie Nelson has the singer finding his audience in the barrooms and field concerts of central Texas during the early-1970s, adding an unlikely hippie component to the redneck following that already appreciated country music.
Porter Wagoner’s appearance in Los Angeles on Saturday (Feb. 17) had a similar feel. With his 50th anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member coming this Friday (Feb. 23), the Country Music Hall of Fame member has already built a reputation with fans of traditional country music.
But the crowd that filled the Music Box at Fonda Theatre in Hollywood was different. The place was crammed with 9-to-5ers, college students, bohemians and one only-in-California guy with Pablo Cruise curls, wearing sunglasses — in the dark. These are not the kinds of people one would expect to show a lot of tolerance for a thin man with a silver pompadour in a purple, rhinestone-encrusted suit.
And Wagoner likely had no idea what to expect. He hadn’t played Los Angeles proper since a date at the Shrine Auditorium nearly 40 years ago, a concert that admittedly escapes his memory.
Yet Wagoner, who filled the middle slot in a show that headlined alt-country’s Neko Case with opening singer-songwriter Eric Bachmann, earned both rapt attention and boisterous applause in a 25-minute set that leaned on dramatic characters and classic storytelling.
It helped, no doubt, that he assembled an all-star supporting cast. Marty Stuart played guitar and mandolin, taking one turn on an instrumental solo loaded with furious, rippling lines that literally had people stomping on the floor.
“He plays mandolin, slot machines, poker …” Wagoner cracked.
Wagoner was also backed by Dwight Yoakam (on bass) and Billy Bob Thornton (on drums) during several numbers, including his half-spoken “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a lonely piece that concludes with the artist contemplating his eventual burial. The room became respectfully quiet as he delivered the quiet “Men With Broken Hearts,” an old recitation that Hank Williams originated via his alter-ego, Luke the Drifter. Wagoner veered thematically into dementia with the Johnny Cash-penned “Committed to Park View” and the echo-enhanced “The Rubber Room,” and he chipped in the poor man’s spiritual consolation, “A Satisfied Mind.”
The 79-year-old Wagoner, who underwent emergency surgery last summer for an aortic aneurysm (the same affliction that killed Conway Twitty), had trouble remembering the words on a couple of occasions — even when he read “Park View” off a music stand — and wavered on some of his extended notes. But Wagoner’s sincerity and authenticity pushed through the missed notes and the huckster-ish glitter of all those rhinestones, and he connected rather surprisingly with the crowd on Hollywood Boulevard. Many in attendance were probably hearing Wagoner for the first time, but they paid close attention, quiet in the right spots, laughing at other appropriate ones and showing a huge amount of respect after each performance.
“The newest rock star in Los Angeles!” Stuart proclaimed.
Well, not really a rock star, but he clearly has his place.
Case and Bachmann help to show just how unusual that place is. Where Wagoner employs country’s historic presentation techniques, complete with storytelling and neighborly dashes of humor, Case and Bachmann spoke little at all on stage. Like Wagoner, however, Case has a distinct connection to authenticity, though it’s hardly demonstrated in a traditional context.
Case might have employed a banjo and standup bass in Saturday’s concert, but they often bolstered an off-kilter musical language as the material vacillated from jangly Byrds references to Irish folk influences. In her most unusual number, Case came off like the ghost of June Carter channelled through the psychedelic era. Her voice is forceful and unharnessed, a sort of Patty Loveless with attitude. But there’s an emotional honesty to it that makes her hybrid brand of country just as authentic as Wagoner’s traditional version.
Bachmann, sporting a beard and knitted skull cap, worked the same folk territory that’s been travelled at times by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, and in the most expansive definitions of the genre, that music is now embraced by some as country, too.
That is, perhaps, a telling reason why Wagoner could find such a receptive audience in a post-grunge performance along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In an era when television reality shows are scripted and new songs are built on 30-year-old samples of other people’s work, there’s still a solid core of music fans who simply want something that’s real. That’s the common ground shared by the daring Neko Case and the elder statesman Porter Wagoner. And probably just a new version of Willie Nelson’s patchwork consumer base.