Friday, 25 May 2007

Album Review: Wagonmaster

Having cut Satisfied Mind in 1954 - inspiring covers by everyone from Bob Dyland to Jeff Buckley - started the Nudie suit craze, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957, pioneered music television with the long-running Porter Wagoner Show, discovered Dolly Parton in 1967, and having had I Will Always Love You written about him, Porter Wagoner is, in short, a proper country legend.

But despite a hip record label, recent gigs at Joe's in Manhattan and appearances with Neko Case, Wagonmaster won't inspire the same Lazurus-like resurrection that American Recordings brought Johnny Cash. Wagoner, unlike Cash, refuses to tilt at contemporary songs or styles. It should be no surprise; Wagoner always played it straight, his country-tonk was never quite as fashionable as the outlaw heroics of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. Wagonmaster, however, is a stronger album for it.

While Wagoner's most recent work has been exclusively gospel; it hasn't detracted from his honky-tonk heart. His voice is wise, experienced and vulnerable as only an old man's could be. Marty Stuart's, no-frills, purist approach to production takes us back to the Jim Denny days of the Grand Ole Opre.

At the album's heart lies Committed To Parkview, written by Johnny Cash in the 1980s for Wagoner to perform. Both had spent time in the infamous Nashville asylum (Wagoner in the mid-`60s for exhaustion). Cash had given it to Marty Stuart while the two were touring Europe in 1981 but Stuart misplaced it for nearly 25 years. It's eerie, creepy and more than a little bit sad - a vivid account of life inside the asylum listening to the tormented cries of fellow inmates, one of whom thinks he's Hank Williams. Wagoner convincingly declares, "Hope I never have to go there again."

Wagonmaster is eccentric, heartfelt and often brilliant; the kind of heartache and twang that only a country music giant could provide.

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