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Music Picks

Porter Wagoner Is Back

His country music was subversive then and now.

By Adrian Mack 14 Jun 2007 |

Adrian Mack is a Vancouver-based musician and writer. When he's not busy practicing, writing, editing, raising his kid and being a devoted husband, he's wondering how anybody could find the time to blog.

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Syrupy Nashville cliché, and talented rootsy hillbilly.

Porter Wagoner is a weirdo, even by country music standards. Looking like a Swedish Fred Gwynne with all the air sucked out, Wagoner was so long and tall that he probably had to climb on a stool just to fix his hair (with Testor's non-toxic plastic cement, by the looks of things).

Most of us remember Wagoner, of course, from his TV series in the '70s: The Porter Wagoner Show, in which he wore Nudie suits of such blinding gaudiness that it seemed to make your television vibrate. Through the show, he brought Dolly Parton to the world, and then threw public hissy fits when her solo career soared. For some, he embodied the syrupy Nashville formula that came to blight country music's proud roots, and symbolized the industry's conservative mindset at its most depressingly entrenched. He was certainly no outlaw.

But others knew that behind the Nashville stereotype, Wagoner had firm roots in the pioneer country music of the '50s. On top of that, he was also gutsy and eccentric enough to release oddball projects like 1972's What Ain't to Be, Just Might Happen, an album that is basically insane (in a good way).

Among those who were hip to Wagoner's breadth and quality as a performer were the Byrds, who covered his "A Satisfied Mind" as early as 1965, shortly before a handful of cosmic freaks and longhairs would seize LA's fabled Troubadour club (known as the place to catch bands just before they made it big), as a venue for their own experiments with hillbilly music. In the acid-rock climate of the time, with country on the right and a new, switched-on generation to the left, the perversity of such an enterprise cannot be underestimated.

Forty years later, in what would appear to be a similarly counter-intuitive move, the business-minded punks behind the ANTI- label have resurrected "the Wag" (I'm hoping I just coined that nickname) for an unreasonably strong collection of straight-up, honky-tonk shit-kickers called Wagonmaster, which has been smartly designed by producer Marty Stuart to reflect the first and purest decade of Wagoner's three score years in the business.

But the reason we're here, kiddies, is this.

"Committed to Parkview" is being heavily billed as the belated sequel to Wagoner's "The Rubber Room," the most gonzo of all the tracks on What Ain't to Be. If this is your first encounter with the exquisitely outré delights of "The Rubber Room," then I envy you -- although the relatively sober tone of the newer song has changed the meaning of the first for me, given that both were produced in the midst of shady, dishonest and disastrous military adventures.

It's a leap, I know, but art ain't created in a vacuum, and country music has long struggled to maintain an untenable moral rectitude on the surface, as a popular expression of America's fabled decency. Which is why it always blows up so spectacularly.

Perhaps, with "Committed to Parkview," the 80-year-old Wagoner can't bring himself to make a novelty out of madness anymore, when he's finally seen too much of it. The album as a whole takes him back to his roots, while the driest track of the bunch quietly repudiates the dishonesty of its forebear.

Wagoner sounds weary, sad and eminently sane on "Parkview." In fact, looking at this again, I'd say the only person who should be committed is Marty Stuart's hairdresser, judging by his appearance at the end of the "Parkview" video.

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