Porter Wagoner’s last studio album, Wagonmaster, was released in June of 2007, and with his passing in October at the age of 80, the final page of his career has sadly been turned. But no genre of music is more thorough in its retrospectives and compilations than country, and Time Life’s Legends of the Grand Ole Opry volume devoted to Wagoner is a step towards ensuring that the Thin Man from the West Plains remains in the upper tiers of country music heroes. Despite being best known for introducing Dolly Parton to the world via his television show in 1967, he leaves behind a trove of affecting and genuine performances that may not have garnered the acclaim or success of his contemporaries, but may well endure. Legends compiles 14 tracks recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium from 1963 to 1967, and runs a brisk half hour, which is more than enough time to endear listener’s to Wagoner’s gentle, welcoming showmanship.
The songs collected here, though culled from various shows over a four-year span, seem mostly concerned with the balance between public and private morality, explored as if listeners were all residents of the same small community. Some tracks, like “What Would You Do? (If Jesus Came to Your House)”, use the fulcrum of religion, while others draw on secular topics such as booze (“Life of the Party”) and country music itself (“Country Music Has Gone to Town”) to express concern, approval, and regret. “What Would You Do” is fairly hammy, its question-based structure and soft spoken-word delivery inherently smug, asking “If Jesus came to your house to spend a day or two… / I wonder what you’d do”, presupposing there’s a right answer, and that the song’s author knows what it is. But Wagoner’s delivery is neither accusatory nor strident; he communicates a shared understanding, despite the song’s lyrics, that he wouldn’t make the perfect host either. Paired back-to-back with the self-deprecating “Life of the Party”, and sharing the set with the cautionary “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw”, “What Would You Do” becomes less hectoring still, as Wagoner had a knack for lifting up bad material.
The album is bookended by two cuts that speak directly to Wagoner’s appeal, “Come On In (And Make Yourself at Home)” and “Company’s Comin’”, both energized blends of old-timey piety and hard country grit primarily concerned with being a good host. It’s fitting, too, that Wagoner was a regular host of Grand Ole Opry radio and television programming. Indeed, it’s hard to find anything truly disagreeable on this compilation, with even the most sentimental tracks expertly performed, and Wagoner’s presence so inviting. The only crack in his professional armor is a charming break into laughter on “Life of the Party”, which also features yodel-derived twangy inflections a la Hank Williams, and some cross-stage whoops and yea’s. Williams’s own “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw”, introduced here as one of Wagoner’s personal favorites, is a telling choice. A story-song that juxtaposes a gossipy neighbor’s contempt for a troubled neighborhood girl with the revelation that the girl later sacrifices herself to save the gossip’s daughter from a speeding car, the song exemplifies Wagoner’s do-right philosophy.
With the recent interest in and appreciation for classic country music, sparked in part by Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-abetted resurgence, younger listeners (including myself) have been exposed to a seemingly limitless wealth of performers whose work was mishandled or misguided in the artistic black hole of the ‘80s. And though the return of the spotlight on Wagoner brought on by Wagonmaster and this live collection is tinged with sadness (for those already wise to his catalog) and regret (for those, like me, discovering him a moment too late), it is nonetheless as welcome as the singer’s entreaties to come on in and make yourself at home.