A new album on a Los Angeles-based rock label and his 50th anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry have converged to make the resplendent Porter Wagoner this season’s hottest senior.
Wagoner is the latest manifestation of the country re-discovery phenomenon — usually engineered by an adoring younger generation — that occurred in the mid-’90s with Johnny Cash (after rock producer Rick Rubin took up his cause) and with Loretta Lynn in 2004 (via the passion of rocker Jack White of the White Stripes).
Wagoner’s angel is Marty Stuart, whose affection for and knowledge of country music are boundless. He not only pitched the 79-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer to Anti Records, he also masterminded and produced the new album, Wagonmaster.
The album resurrects the Spartan splendor of country music as it used to sound, back when the images and attitudes were largely rural and the instrumentation was generally acoustic. Stuart’s band, the Fabulous Superlatives, serves as Wagoner’s backup corps, aided by such stellar sidemen as Stuart Duncan, Fred Newell, Eric Fritsch and Gordon Mote. Stuart even brought back Buck Trent, Wagoner’s former banjo player, to play on several tunes.
Of the 17 songs in the new collection, Wagoner wrote or co-wrote nine. Most of these are dark tales and ruminations, not the sunny stuff the singer usually does on the Opry.
Stuart was playing a showcase last year at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, when a representative from Epitaph Records (Anti’s parent company) asked him if there was any artist he’d like to produce for the label. After giving the matter some thought, Stuart suggested Wagoner.
Not long after the singer agreed to do the album, he suffered a near fatal stomach aneurysm. It sidelined him for months, and he’s still recovering from it.
A formidable and exacting record producer himself — and the one who guided Dolly Parton to stardom — Wagoner says he had no qualms about working with Stuart once he understood “what he was going for.” Stuart’s goal, as it turned out, was nothing less than recapturing the spirit and sound Wagoner had perfected as leader of the Wagonmasters band.
“[Marty] said, ‘You’ve got more fans than you realize — young people that love you,’” Wagoner recalls. “I found out that they really do.”
Although the two men started selecting songs for the album before Wagoner became ill in July 2006, they had to delay recording until near the end of the year. Wagoner was visibly weak in the studio, but his voice emerged as strong and sure of itself.
After finishing the album, Stuart talked Wagoner into performing at a club in Los Angeles during the week of the Grammy awards. The crowd — and the reviewers — loved him. “I was so impressed by it,” Wagoner beams. “Man, I was like a big-time celebrity come to town. That sort of made my career start up again. It was a great feeling.”
A highlight of Wagonmaster is Johnny Cash’s “Committed to Parkview,” a grim ballad about the lost souls in a Nashville mental institution. It’s also the first single from the album and a thought-provoking music video.
When Cash wrote “Parkview” in the ’80s, he thought it was something Wagoner might want to record. At the time, Stuart was in Cash’s band. So the Man in Black gave him a copy of the song and asked him to pitch it to Wagoner. But Stuart put it aside and forgot about it. Cash eventually recorded the song himself. It wasn’t until Stuart was looking for Wagonmaster material that he found the copy his old boss had given him.
Wagoner says his association with Cash goes back a long way. “We worked a lot together, John and I,” he recalls. “We started in business at the same time. The first tour I ever worked was me, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Hank Snow and Ferlin Husky. That was the package.
“I believe we worked 17 days together [during] the latter part of 1956, going into ’57. Hank Snow was the headliner on the tour, and he’d hired the rest of us because we all had new records out. It was a strange thing that happened during the tour. I guess he didn’t know about Elvis. The first night of the tour, they wouldn’t let Elvis off the stage. He just knocked the people out.”
And that’s precisely what Wagoner’s been doing these days. On July 24, he’ll open for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden in New York City and appear the following night on The Late Show With David Letterman.