Country music favorite Porter Wagoner had pretty much resigned himself to keeping a few concert dates and honoring his obligations to the Grand Ole Opry when he received a cassette in the mail from fellow Missourian Damon Black.
Wagoner's fame rests on several things: his country hits, including "Company's Coming," "A Satisfied Mind," "Misery Loves Company," "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "The Carroll County Accident"; his stint from 1960 to 1981, as host of his own syndicated TV show; and his role as Dolly Parton's duet partner, producer and employer from 1967 to 1974.
Wagoner, who turns 73 in August, released a few albums in the early '80s after his TV show ended, including Viva Porter Wagoner for Warner Bros. (1983) and Porter Wagoner for Dot (1986). But in the years since, he has not ventured back into the studio to record a full album of original material.
Black made a go of it as a songwriter years ago in Nashville. His credits include "Arkansas," recorded by the Wilburn Brothers, The Osborne Brothers and Don Walser, and "I Haven't Seen Mary in Years" done by Wagoner himself and by Bill Monroe.
When Black had an opportunity to take over the family farm, back in Missouri, he put his musical dreams on hold and returned home. Years later, Wal-Mart came looking for land, paid Black $3.5 million and gave him the chance to take up music again.
"He said to his wife, Helen, 'I'm going to do what I want to do now. I want to write an album for Porter Wagoner,'" says Wagoner. He is explaining the genesis of his new CD, The Best I've Ever Been, during an interview in the office adjoining his home on a quiet road just off Briley Parkway, almost in view of the Grand Ole Opry House. He has been a cast member of the show since 1957.
Black took 4½ years to write the songs. George Jones' fiddler visited him in Missouri and, after hearing a demo, offered to have Jones cut one of the songs, but Black insisted that Wagoner would have first crack at all the tunes. When he finished writing, Black sent Wagoner a cassette containing 16 original compositions. The tape sat on Wagoner's desk for a week before he had a chance to give it an audition.
"One evening, around 6 or 7 o'clock, I started listening to the songs," Wagoner recalls in his inimitable Missouri drawl. "It just absolutely knocked me completely out. They were the best songs I had ever heard in my whole career, as a group. I found myself still listening to those songs at 4 o'clock the next morning. I listened to 'em all night, over and over, trying to pick the ones I would want to do."
Wagoner was impressed not only by the quality of songs, but by their originality and the variety of subject matter, ranging from May-December romance ("I Knew This Day Would Come") to the demise of the family farm ("Brewster's Farm"). Many capture a nostalgic mood -- for a rural lifestyle ("Dusty Delta Memories"); for the wisdom of generations gone by ("Daddy's Ole Sayins, Mama's Beliefs"); for a former relationship ("I'd Like to Make That Same Mistake Again"); or for a fiddling father ("The Fiddle and the Bow").
Though he had no label affiliation, Wagoner decided to record the songs, confident he could find someone to put them out. Drawing on his experience as de facto producer of his own work and his work with Parton, he supervised recording of the musical tracks at a local studio, Sound Control, while he cut the vocals at his house, on his own digital equipment.
"I could take my time and sing 'em when I wanted to sing 'em thataway," he explains. "I feel like I got a better cut on 'em than going in and trying to cut 'em in a regular session."
Aptly The Best I've Ever Been, the collection was released on a limited basis May 9 and went into national distribution on July 4. Wagoner teamed with Nashville-based Shell Point Records, a company with a strong Internet presence and the ability to promote to alt-country radio outlets sympathetic to more traditional country artists. The same company issued "Murder on Music Row" in its original version, by Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, though Wagoner says that had nothing to do with his decision to partner with the company.
The Best I've Ever Been represents a return to form for a country music pioneer. Hank Williams Sr. was an important early influence -- Wagoner claims to have seen Williams make his first appearance at the Opry ("He was country, buddy, and he didn't put no frills on.") and his first recording was a cover of Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire." He got his first break in Springfield, Mo., on radio station KWTO. He appeared on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee, hosted by Red Foley -- the man Wagoner regards as the chief influence on his entertainment career -- from 1955 to 1956, before moving to Nashville and earning Opry membership.
In today's marketplace, Wagoner says, he hears many songs that lack any distinctive quality -- "Songs that are kinda like little bubblegum songs, you know?"
Which is why Black's work stood out, and why he had to make the new record. "These songs have got some meat in 'em," Wagoner says. "They're there, buddy."