Field Reportings from Issue #67
LETTING PORTER BE PORTER: Extraordinary recording sessions were taking place just off Music Row in Nashville during the last week of November for a Marty Stuart-produced hard-core country Porter Wagoner album tentatively entitled Wagonmaster. It’s set for release on Anti- Records in May, as the tall, thin man from West Plains, Missouri, marks his 50th anniversary as a member and frequent host of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I wanted to do what I wanted to do for a change,” Wagoner said, just before heading in to record two more tracks for this mainly self-penned set of honky-tonk shuffles and unremitting country ballads.
“It’s a dream come true, to get to work with someone you love and respect,” he continued. “I’m really impressed with the things Marty’s picked for me to sing. And these musicians” — all of Stuart’s objectively fabulous Superlatives, augmented by others on keyboards, steel and more — “are very good.”
The morning’s numbers included a new Wagoner original in his Gothic mode, “The Agony Of Waiting” (in vain), which begins with Phantom Of The Opera-ominous piano and features a typically impeccably-phrased, bone-chilling Wagoner vocal. The band and engineers let loose with a spontaneous “Woooo!” as the keeper second take concluded. The second number was a simply harrowing reading of Johnny Cash’s little-known ballad “Committed To Parkview”, a story of life in a Nashville psychiatric hospital coming off pills — something both Johnny and Porter, it turns out, had experienced.
“Johnny Cash gave me that to give to Porter,” Marty recalled, “when the two of us were on tour and listening to Porter’s old ‘Nuthouse’ records. It was 1981, but I forgot to give it to him! Six months ago I stopped by his house and said, ‘Johnny Cash said to give this to you.’
The recording project germinated when Wagoner recited the Luke the Drifter number “Be Careful Of The Stones That You Throw” on a hard-country Opry show Stuart hosted a year ago.
“It was all I could do to keep it together,” Stuart recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s the Wagonmaster — before my eyes.’ It took Porter from where he’s kind of been for the past fifteen years or so, back into a serious light that I hadn’t seen him presented in, for a long time.”
Wagoner, it turned out, had more than a few new and unheard songs in waiting. “I wrote probably a couple of hundred songs in the last three years,” he says. “I like to write anymore. It’s not really hard work for me now, like it was when I was trying to make a living out of it. I can relax and enjoy it, more than worrying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have a hit.'”
Stuart described the process from there. “I said, ‘Let me take some of these songs and see if I can get somebody interested.’ So I made the rounds in Nashville — and nobody cared. But when I ran into Andy Kaulkin, of Epitaph/Anti-, and said, ‘How would Tom Waits and Neko Case and Mavis Staples feel about having Porter Wagoner as a labelmate?’, he said ‘Talk to me!'”
The project would have gotten under way last summer but for an aneurysm that threatened Wagoner’s life just as the sessions were about to commence. He’s still recovering, and is taking a sabbatical from his regular Opry hosting duties until the spring.
“I’m really doing well,” he says. “I truly think God saved my life. The doctor couldn’t understand it; it’s a special thing. And now I’m a-lookin’ forward to getting the work done on this, because it’s going to be something special I’ll enjoy the rest of my life.”
— BARRY MAZOR
LOUVIN IS REAL: Traveling from his Manchester, Tennessee, home, Charlie Louvin still plays churches and VFW halls in Alabama and Mississippi, but when it came time to make a new record, he went to Nashville. The 79-year-old singer, revered for his pioneering country music work with his late brother Ira, will release a self-titled duets record February 20 on Tompkins Square that pairs him with Mark Nevers, whose unobtrusively subversive production has enhanced recent records by Bobby Bare and Candi Staton.
The album came about as a result of a fan’s passion for Charlie’s work as the guitar-playing half of the Louvin Brothers. Josh Rosenthal, who started Tompkins Square a year ago, went to see Charlie play in upstate New York in 2003, and in early 2006 he floated the idea of making a record. Rosenthal also was a fan of Nevers’ production. The result is a record that doesn’t attempt to reproduce the sound of the Louvin Brothers’ classics, or of Ira’s inspired mandolin playing.
Nevers, whose home is also his recording studio (Beech House), cuts on tape. This doesn’t make him a traditionalist, but he had enough historical awareness to be nervous about working with Charlie. “It was like, God, how are we gonna beat the originals? We’re just gonna get creamed,” Nevers says. “But the more I got into it, I realized this was an old man reflecting on his life.”
“Ira”, Charlie’s song about his brother, who died in a 1965 automobile accident, is the record’s centerpiece, and provides a clue to Nevers’ strategy. “From the beginning, I told Charlie, ‘I’m not going to replace your brother, ’cause we’ll be killified for it,'” he says, coining a phrase.
When Marty Stuart, a longtime Louvins fan who appears on six of the record’s twelve songs, suggested that the arrangements needed a more obvious link to the past, Nevers had a different view. “[Stuart] said, ‘These songs need more mandolin,'” Nevers recalls, “but then we’re just replacing Ira.
“‘Ira’ is about Ira being dead, basically, and that’s the record’s climax. Before that, there’s nobody singing the high parts or playing the mandolin. So when that song shows up, those things make sense.”
Recorded almost entirely live (Jeff Tweedy, who guests on “The Great Atomic Power”, was the only singer who didn’t go to Nashville), the album features guest contributors on the order of Stuart, Elvis Costello and George Jones. “He didn’t bring his wife, which means there was no money involved,” Nevers says of Jones.
Costello, who sings on “When I Stop Dreaming”, stopped in on his way to Bonnaroo last spring. “He was like a kid in a candy store,” Nevers says. “He couldn’t believe he was actually working on a Louvin record.”
The producer says he never forgot whose record it was, and how the irreducible sound of the Louvins continues to haunt the memory. “The singers are there for that one little section, and then they’re gone,” Nevers laughs. “Charlie, he still has that attitude that they were out of time and out of place, and so he just does what he can.”
— EDD HURT
THE LAST ROUNDUP: Blue Note Records plans a January 30 release for Not Too Late, the third studio album by NORAH JONES. In addition to her usual posse of collaborators (Lee Alexander, Adam Levy, Jesse Harris et al.), the record also features appearances by M. Ward and Kronos Quartet cellist Jeff Ziegler….
Also due out January 30 is ENDLESS HIGHWAY: THE MUSIC OF THE BAND, a tribute to the legendary Canadian roots-music group on 429 Records. Among the 21 artists taking part are Rosanne Cash, Joe Henry, John Hiatt & the North Mississippi All Stars, My Morning Jacket, Death Cab For Cutie, Lee Ann Womack, Gomez, Josh Turner, the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic, Jackie Greene and Jakob Dylan….
Another tribute album due out January 30, on Koch Records, features just one band — the SMITHEREENS — offering up their best Beatles impression on Meet The Smithereens. The disc’s dozen tracks include “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “All My Lovin'”, “I Saw Her Standing There”….
Iconoclastic songwriter LEE HAZLEWOOD has set a January 23 release date on Ever Records for Cake Or Death, which he says will be his final recording….
January 23 is also the release date for New West Records’ soundtrack to the film BLACK SNAKE MOAN, featuring tracks from John Doe, the Black Keys, R.L. Burnside, the North Mississippi All Stars, Son House and others….
Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch, the latest from Texas legend JOE ELY, arrives February 6 on his own label, Rack ‘Em Records, with distribution via Nashville’s CBuJ Entertainment….
Singer-songwriter MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER has signed with Zoe/Rounder Records, which will release her new album The Calling in March. The disc was co-produced by Carpenter and longtime Lyle Lovett keyboardist Matt Rollings….
JOHN PRINE and MAC WISEMAN have recorded an album together. Label and release date plans have yet to be announced….
Toronto band the SADIES spent a couple weeks in Spain in late November writing and recording new material with former Jayhawks leader GARY LOURIS, for a record tentatively to be released in mid-2007 on Yep Roc….
Folk troubadour IAN TYSON was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Canadian province’s highest honor, in October. Tyson, 72, followed the induction by playing a rare reunion gig with his former wife and singing partner SYLVIA TYSON in Toronto in November.