NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Big & Rich, June Carter Cash and Porter Wagoner

Today's Country Still Offers a Musical Rainbow

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Looking at the current Nielsen SoundScan chart of top-selling country music CDs, I see that there’s a vast gap between the No. 1 album at the top and the No. 75 album at the bottom. And it’s not just the matter of sales numbers that separates the two. It’s a vast span of time that divides the two into enormously different eras.

The No. 1 CD is Big & Rich’s Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, which is an adventurous leap into country’s future. The No. 75 entry is Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash, which is a way-back machine’s somber but celebratory look at country’s past. It’s a loving tribute by June and Johnny’s son John Carter Cash to his mother and to her musical heritage which goes back to the Carter Family’s pioneering country recordings almost a century ago. Artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello to Ronnie Dunn to Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris pay tribute to June and her family tradition.

Between Big & Rich and June Carter Cash and the Carter Family, these two CDs pretty well cover country music’s first 100 years.

As for the future of country music, I think it seems to be pretty well-taken care of for the most part, with a slew of young artists — many of whom have not entirely lost sight of where country music came from — who are lined up to take over.

John Rich of Big & Rich, for one, is a walking archive of country music, which I discovered after first meeting him probably a dozen years ago. During an interview with Big & Rich just the other day, I threw an obscure song title at John and asked him if he knew it and could sing some of it. He picked up his guitar and ran through the first verses of it, just letter-perfect. The song was “Private John Q,” a truly deep-catalog Roger Miller tune, and I was amazed that even I remembered it. It was not released as a single and never charted, although it’s a great song. But Rich knew it. The man knows his country music.

And there’s another new country CD that I’d like to call your attention to. It’s up at No. 72 on this Nielsen SoundScan chart, and it’s Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. And this also conjures up a large canvas of country music’s disappearing past.

This is the past of Hank Williams and early Nudie suits and 25-cents-a-gallon gasoline and 1953 Cadillacs as touring cars and the raucous barroom sounds of Faron Young and Lefty Frizzell and gospel camp meetings and of .38 specials as essential touring tools and of rawboned country gigs in the “skull orchards” — as the early knock-down-and-drag-out honky-tonks were called.

Wagonmaster addresses murder, insanity, the loony bin, prison, revenge, drinking and everything else that has made country music what it is. Producer Marty Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, showcase Wagoner in his true light. This is not retro, not nostalgic, not a golden tribute. This amounts to the stark, cold, hard facts of life as Porter has sung about for years. It is no surprise that Nashville record labels passed on this project, and Stuart finally landed it on Anti, a punk label in Los Angeles. This is not Wagoner tarted up and thrust into slick pop country. This is the raw, unvarnished Porter Wagoner as he has always been.

The centerpiece, of course, is the Johnny Cash-penned “Committed to Parkview,” about an asylum where both Cash and Wagoner actually spent time. But there many gems here. Listen to the Wagoner-Dolly Parton collaboration in “My Many Hurried Southern Trips” — about Southern tragedies, including the days when an unwed pregnancy was a social disgrace. Or the matter-of-fact madness presented in the seemingly jaunty songs “Be a Little Quieter” and “Albert Erving.” Or the glorious misery of “The Late Love of Mine.” And no one does song recitations the way Wagoner does, to great effect here, as in “Brother Harold Dee” and “Men with Broken Hearts.”

It’s not surprising that Wagoner has been getting rave reviews for live shows on both coasts. It’s so rare for these critics to catch a glimpse of authentic old Nashville that the mere sight of Wagoner in his flashy Nudie suits is enough to set off hosannas.

Wagoner will turn 80 this August, and time has ravaged his voice a bit. But it’s still the voice of experience and honesty and authenticity. It’s the sound of life.

Porter will open for the White Stripes in the big room — New York City’s Madison Square Garden — on July 24. When you make it to the Garden, you have truly made it to the big time. Good for him. Can you imagine Hank at the Garden?