In his 1955 country hit, “A Satisfied Mind”, Porter Wagoner, longtime Grand Ole Opry emissary, original duet partner of Dolly Parton, and unabashed proponent of Nudie suit fashion, sang of comfort in the shadow of restlessness: “The wealthiest person is a pauper at times / Compared to the man with a satisfied mind”. Tall and thin, with a conservative musical style equalized by a flamboyant wardrobe, Wagoner embodies those most paradoxical of country music truisms: humble sincerity can come from a gilded source, and compositional sleight-of-hand hides emotional wreckage behind a gauzy veil of hope.
Consequently, Wagoner has never crossed over to audiences outside country music’s perimeter like many of his contemporaries. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, his television program, The Porter Wagoner Show, afforded him a higher profile than many (it also introduced the world to Parton, whose mainstream fame would eventually exceed his), but Wagoner’s resolve as a country-music company man has kept him from the mainstream iconography bestowed upon the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
Wagonmaster, Wagoner’s first new studio album since 2000’s The Best I’ve Ever Been, won’t necessarily change the status quo, but it does tap into the current niche market of revivalism spearheaded by a string of releases on Anti Records. Like Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and Bettye Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise before it, Wagonmaster is a reintroduction of a semi-obscured, twilight-nearing legend and, to some degree, an album of late-period reflection, though its reflection is matched only by its circumspection—Wagoner, at 80 years old, remains the restless type. It’s there, hand-in-hand with the promise of comfort, in the slow country shuffle of “Be a Little Quieter”, in which Wagoner pleads, “When you finish with your bath, please close the faucet / The dripping sounds just like a pouring rain”. Bob Miller’s “Eleven Cent Cotton”, likewise, laments hard times by remembering hard times from the past, and “Who Knows Right from Wrong” looks at past romantic ruin with surprising composure: “I could not condemn her or accuse him of wrong / When two hearts are happy, who knows right from wrong”.
Marty Stuart, Wagonmaster‘s producer, keeps the sound slick and accommodating without pandering to the airbrushed finish of contemporary Nashvegas. It’s all a showcase for Wagoner; the instruments circle around his voice and make like muted spotlights, tender and nippy and true to archetypal form. In songs like “A Place to Hang My Hat”, the guitars and fiddles respond to every statement he makes, and the album’s sequencing, complete with the “Wagonmaster #1” introductory announcement and the instrumental interlude of “Buck and the Boys”, runs with stage show efficiency. Wagoner’s voice plunks down like a heavy weight in the middle of it all, gluey and measured like the rhythm of gum chewing. He rolls each word in his mouth as if he was making a map of their texture, and with a Midwestern tang splays out tenderized elocution.
That voice is tailor-made for Cash’s “Committed to Parkview”, a song that details a stay at a mental institution where both Cash and Wagoner once spent some time. Wagoner details the throng of deluded and despaired, many of them celebrities of some stripe, “a lot of real fine talent staying in or passin’ through” including “a man who thinks he’s Hank Williams”. “I hope I never have to go back there again”, Wagoner says in the song’s spoken-word opening, and the image of psychically besieged refuge, trapped in a classic Cash melody of almost rudimentary prudence, becomes a palpable flashback. There are less weighty reflection pieces, too—“Albert Erving”, for instance, a portrait of a sentimental eccentric who carved a picture of a beautiful woman out of wood, or “My Many Hurried Southern Trips”, a bus driver’s tale that Wagoner and Parton first performed during their partnership—but no matter what kind of story Wagoner tells, his voice confirms that he’s been there, done that, holding out for the highs and weathering the lows in balanced union.