NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Death, the Mental Asylum and a Comeback at Age 79

Boots Dies, Doug Is Locked Up, Porter Comes Back

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

What a state of affairs. This week the biggest news in country music — practically the only news in country music in fact — was news of the passing of another old-timer, word of a former rising young star being committed to a mental institution and the critical buzz surrounding the return of a 79-year-old artist, some of whose songs take place in mental institutions.

I guess all the big country stars are too busy checking their stock prices or ramping up ticket sales in far-flung venues to ever make news anymore. Well, more power to them, if they’re not getting drunk and riding lawnmowers down to a bar, or stuffing hundred dollar bills up their noses in a back room somewhere, or being caught with their pants down in a bedroom or hotel room they shouldn’t had oughta been in. At least we don’t know about it.

To address the news at hand, the passing of Boots Randolph at age 80 marked the end of a remarkably versatile career of a man who played an instrument that seemingly wouldn’t have had much of a career in Nashville — the saxophone. But he was able to stretch his sound across musical genres, backing such artists as Chet Atkins, Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison and having solo hits on his own. He was a man of considerable dignity and presence.

Doug Supernaw, who was a country artist of great promise and potential in the ’90s, went into a personal and career downward spiral that went totally out of control. It’s been obvious for years that he needed professional help, and instead, he got caught up in a cycle of being jailed and released and jailed and released again and again. Perhaps the action of a judge in Texas in finally ordering him into an institution to get help will do some good. I hope for his sake that this treatment can give him the guidance and direction he needs.

The return to recording and performing by Porter Wagoner is welcomed, especially since I can’t recall a 79-year-old artist enjoying such a career resurgence. After decades of being regarded as mainly an artist of yesteryear and an Opry museum piece, Wagoner’s distinctive brand of music is getting a listen from a whole new audience. His kind of classic country music being accepted should really come as no big surprise, since music in any genre that bears the stamp of authenticity can survive on its own. It’s just a matter of time until it finds another audience. Remarkably, Wagoner’s three Grammy awards are for gospel recordings he made with the Blackwood Brothers.

In this case, it was the support of Marty Stuart and Los Angeles record label Anti that were instrumental in coaxing the somewhat frail Wagoner into remounting a foray into recording and performing. The new CD, Wagonmaster, produced by Stuart and featuring his amazingly versatile Fabulous Superlatives, re-introduces the Porter of the past few decades to you. For the most part, this is the country music of grim reality — for that’s the world that country audiences knew for so many years. This includes the Johnny Cash-penned “Committed to Parkview,” a song about the mental institution where both Cash and Wagoner were once committed. And the song is a matter-of-fact rundown of life in the asylum. Which makes it all the grittier — and all the better. The other songs are a great representation of the Porter of old, with a fair sprinkling of his country gothic songs. His songs are very matter-of-fact and down-to-earth and day-to-day gritty details of real life. And when you get right down to it, that’s what country music was built on.

But there’s an Australian import CD I also want to recommend to you. Some months ago, Omni Records of Australia issued a collection of some 29 prime Porter cuts on the package Rubber Room: The Haunting Poetic Songs of Porter Wagoner 1966-1977 that includes things to keep you well-stuffed with thrills and chills for days and nights on end. If you’ve never been exposed to Porter’s original “Rubber Room,” a tale of sheer madness, you need to experience it.

And his collaboration with Dolly Parton on “The Party” is something you should experience. It’s the story of an irresponsible couple who leave their children at home to go to a wild party: “The party started out wild and it grew wilder as the night wore on/With drinking, laughing, telling dirty jokes, nobody thinkin’ of home.” And you can guess what happens. They don’t write them like that any more. For country goth, you just can’t beat Porter Wagoner.