Porter Playing Poker: The Transcendental Kitsch Art of an American Icon
Revisiting an earlier piece in honor of what would have been Porter Wagoner’s 86th birthday:
Elvis Costello looked at me as if I had produced the Holy Grail. His eyes lit up like a schoolboy at the sight of the Porter Wagoner figurines we had on the shelf in the store. After the initial shock had worn down, he confided in me that he was in the midst of an internal crisis and sought my counsel. “I’m rather unsure if I should get the large one or the small one.” I looked at Elvis square in the eye and said, “If you’re going to go there, go all the way.” “I think you’re right,” he said with an affirmative nod and reached for the larger, ten-inch model.
And that really is the essence of Porter Wagoner. If you’re going to be ridiculous, do it big. Allow the absurdity to transcend what would in any other’s hands be pure schlock into unapologetic art. The absurdity often came in the form of sincerity, dangerously close to being false. But it was never false. It was – well – sincere, and there is literally no other artist in the history of recorded music that could pull it off on the level Porter did so masterfully and so consistently. The spoken third verse narration in “The Green Green Grass of Home” alone puts the entire Red Sovine catalog up to immediate suspect for transparent emotional manipulation by comparison. It is a magnificent performance; one of country music’s most sublime. Simultaneously subtle and overbearing. The song follows a common format of country songwriting: first verse sets the scene, second verse expands and the third gives you a killer plot twist that would have anybody with half a conscience weeping openly in surprise and sadness. It is a delicate trick, and backfires more often than it succeeds. But when it succeeds it kills, and it never failed Porter. Nobody pulled it off like Porter. That, friends and neighbors, is Good Porter. No less sincere, and armed with the same tools as Good Porter, is the psychotic twin in his schizophrenic persona. We’ll meet him very soon.
One rather banal weekday afternoon working at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, I took a call from a man somewhere in Georgia. He was looking for a copy of “The Rubber Room,” Porter’s bizarre and brilliant self-penned 1971 tale of mental ward incarceration. I asked him to hold the line and went to check the stock. We didn’t have it and my phonolog (in the fading, final remaining days before computerized catalogs) told me it was out of print. The man on the phone did not like this. For some reason I placed a certain importance on this call. Maybe it was because I was frightened by anyone wanting “The Rubber Room” so earnestly, or perhaps I just felt like spreading some Ernest Tubb good will, but I offered to sell the man the copy we had in the CD player of an old out of print CD that had the song. He asked what time we closed and I told him. “Don’t sell it,” he said, “I’m headin’ that way now.” He hung up.
Several hours later a man walked in the door and said he had called from Georgia and was here for “The Rubber Room.” I couldn’t believe that somebody would drive that far on a whim for one song, let alone “The Rubber Room.” But then again, maybe it HAD to be a song like that to compel such compulsion. I’m sure he turned around and drove back to Georgia right then, “The Rubber Room” on repeat through the reverberated night. We’ve just met Evil Porter. The side that makes men do crazy things; irrational and passionate things. Once the dense heat of their self-made cells gets to be too much, when the story stops making sense, there is only one place to go, and so many a man follows Evil Porter in a hypnotic trance to the rubber room.
Mr. Jones is there. Did he ever kill his second wife we wonder? We know what happened to “The First Mrs. Jones.” Porter buried her body in the forest after she tried to leave him. And how dare she really. She should have known better. The second Mrs. Jones knows better now, doesn’t she? Porter just taught her “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” He learned them hard and he taught them hard. Hey, that’s why they call them the cold hard facts now isn’t it. Nobody said these lessons were easily learned. Thankfully we have Evil Porter to show us these things. The second Mrs. Jones should be grateful.But is Evil Porter really so bad? Why do we feel inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt? Why the pathos for the psychopath? Like Norman Bates, we are given clues to what created this monster, and like Norman, we empathize. Where Norman had his overbearing mother, the genesis of Evil Porter is mostly women who done him wrong. “Everything She Touches Gets The Blues,” “Cold Dark Waters,” “Life of the Party.” These glimpses into the making of Evil Porter stand shrill like the skeletal silhouette of Mrs. Bates screaming Norman’s inadequacies loudly, but not loud enough to drown out the real demons. The real demons always win.
In tomorrow’s newspaper you’ll read about me
but they won’t tell the story I know
For they’ll only say he plunged yesterday
to the cold dark waters below
And yet, like the resilient motel keeper (and dutiful son cleaning up Mommy’s mess) Good Porter does his thing as if it was a different man entirely in those songs. Good Porter is so good, so pure, he cannot have any knowledge or be under any influence of Evil Porter. And perhaps that’s for the best. Maybe Evil Porter is too powerful a force to be unleashed at will. He didn’t show his face for a long time, seemingly virtually extinct to the thousands that flocked to the Opry week after week to watch Porter Wagoner hold court. Evil Porter really had no place at the Opry; this was Good Porter’s show. And man, was it his show. He strutted backstage like a god, with the swagger and grace of a rhinestoned Mick Jagger. Oh yeah, this was his show, you better believe it. You know how he proved it was his show? The fans. When Porter Wagoner walked out on that stage the audience reaction left no doubt. An obligatory flash of his open coat prompted a stampede of camera flashes blindingly illuminating the sequined “HI” on the lining. It was Opry magic – and it happened every week. A continuous feast.
Somewhere in between Good Porter and Evil Porter is Porter. Just plain Porter. Not as “awe shucks” as his Opry persona and early sides, not as psychotically curious as his late 60’s and early 70’s concept albums. This Porter – the real Porter – is perhaps the most fascinating. The Porter who invited James Brown to perform on the Opry on a whim. Some reports say the audience dug it, some say they repelled in horror. I don’t think it really matters. Porter saw something there he knew. These two men – Porter Wagoner and James Brown – had both literally come from nothing but dirt that wouldn’t grow and clamored to the heights of showbiz in their respective fields.
Just plain Porter. He walked into the record shop one morning when I was opening up. Blue jeans, denim jacket, ball cap. “You got any…um…music by Led Zeppelin?” Porter Wagoner asked me this. Porter Wagoner – The Wagonmaster – standing there in his blue denim asked me for Led Zeppelin. His eyes told me he already knew we didn’t before I could answer him. “Guess I gotta go to Tower,” he said. “For Zeppelin yeah,” I said, “but their Porter Wagoner section is shit.”