Porter Wagoner – Hillbilly deluxe
CLOSE UP: Blood-red cowboy boots stride confidently down a tiled hall.
CAMERA PANS: A sage green Nudie suit is revealed. Bejeweled cacti and wagon wheels glitter up and down its legs and sleeves; a Conestoga shimmers on the jacket back.
VOICE: “Direct from Nashville, Tennessee…Here’s The Porter Wagoner Show! Starring…Porter Wagoner!”
The star is tall and crazy-straw thin, and the old television color renders his tanned face and blond hair an orangey hue. He sports two-inch-long sideburns, and his pompadour — a flat-top gone wild, actually — is piled high. Porter tells us that today’s show will be all duets, by card-and-letter request, and then he and his current “girl singer,” Dolly Parton, launch into one of their earliest hits, “Holding On To Nothin'”. Next Porter calls out Speck Rhodes, a little man with theatrically blacked-out front upper teeth wearing a glove-tight check’d suit. Speck tells a few old jokes, then joins the peach-clad Wagonmasters for an old-timey number.
Tune in another week, though, and it might be Porter in a slate blue Nudie and a matching rhinestone-studded cravat, greeting viewers with the square-dance thump of “Howdy Neighbor, Howdy”. Or maybe the suit’s candy-apple red. It blinks in the TV lights like big city neon, and the song he sings is the ballad “Green, Green Grass Of Home” or maybe “The Carroll County Accident”. After that, Porter and Dolly might sing a gospel number, or perhaps their most requested duet, the sentimental number about parents whose daughter asks never to be buried because “Jeannie’s Afraid Of The Dark”. The song ends with one of Porter’s specialties, the solemnly spoken lines known as a recitation.
“I think we always knew we’d never see Jeannie grown,” he admits before the hushed and teary-eyed studio audience. “But on Jeannie’s grave we placed an eternal flame…and on the darkest night, there’s always a light, ’cause Jeannie’s afraid of the dark.”
This is what people used to call a country music show. It’s what generations of country fans loved about their music, and what so many of today’s country fans dismiss as corny and swollen with emotions that have been deemed excessive or inappropriate — sentimental.
What an appropriate emotional response to the death of a child might now be isn’t clear. Best not to talk about dead babies at all, then, or about any of what one of Wagoner’s best-known recordings identified as “The Cold Hard Facts Of Life”. Those facts are, specifically, infidelity and murder, but elsewhere in Wagoner’s catalogue, the grim realities include alcoholism, insanity, sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness, hunger, tornados, nightmares, “blood-soaked” battlefields, incarceration, and suicide.
Such traumas, and the empathy they generate, were once a cornerstone of the mainstream country sensibility, but they’ve mostly disappeared amidst the anthems of perpetual uplift that dominate the format today.
Porter Wagoner is having none of it. Produced by Marty Stuart and backed by Stuart’s world-class country trio, the Superlatives, Porter’s new album Wagonmaster (released June 5 on Anti- Records) is filled with old-school hillbilly virtues — sincere gospel warnings such as “Satan’s River”, story songs of heartbreak and redemption, honky-tonk shuffles, even recitations. Wagoner, who turns 80 on August 12, sings or recites each track with a twang weathered and wise. He’s a walking-talking-sparkling exemplar of an all but extinct country music archetype: Hillbilly deluxe.
Hillbilly, but not Appalachian. Not like Loretta or Dolly, the Carters or the Stanleys. So perhaps there’s no more telling observation to begin with than this: Porter Wagoner is from the Ozarks.
Bounded, more or less, by the Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the Ozark Mountains roll across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, a stubbornly bucolic watershed of densely wooded hollers and limestone hills. “It looks a lot like east Tennessee,” Wagoner explains over the phone from his home near Nashville.
That geography helps explain why some Scots-Irish left the Appalachians of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and began settling in the Ozarks even before the Louisiana Purchase made the region part of the United States. Yet Wagoner goes out of his way to make a distinction:
“It’s like Tennessee, but it’s not Tennessee,” he says. “The Ozarks is its own place.”
In hindsight, Porter Wagoner’s birth on August 12, 1927, in Howell County, Missouri, feels prescient. Or at least it’s a nifty coincidence. Just days earlier, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family had famously recorded for Ralph Peer, also a Missourian, in Bristol, Tennessee. Peer was at that time employed by Victor Records, a predecessor to the RCA-Victor label where Porter would become a country music icon.
In 1927, though, little Porter Wayne was simply the fifth child of Charley and Bertha Wagoner. They raised cows, hogs and chickens on a modest Ozark farm near the Arkansas border.
“People that was raised up in those mountains, well, I think there was just more singers all around because there was so much less to entertain ourselves with,” Porter recalls, referring both to the Appalachians and to the Salem Plateau of the Ozarks where he grew up. “I can still see my dad out working in those fields, just yelling a song at the top of his lungs,” he says of the man who inspired his 1972 LP The Farmer and in particular that album’s gospel recitation, “My Dad”. “We’d hear him singing two, three miles away!”
“Folks back then,” he continues, “their entertainment was pie suppers and cake walks, those type of things, and there’d always be singing while those were going on. And I guess we all had a pretty good echo chamber in those hills.”
The Ozark Mountains are far smaller than their better-known eastern cousins, in area and elevation. Whites settled there much later than in the Appalachians, so the region was “discovered” by the rest of the country later still. There was, too, less of an African-American influence in the Ozarks, or at least the influence was less immediate because fewer African-Americans have lived there. One effect of this history is that Wagoner, as Ozark as they come, has often played music ready for a rompin’-stompin’ good time, but, compared to his contemporaries from the Carolinas or Georgia, or from Texas, his music tends not to swing.
On the other hand, memories of the region’s various Indian cultures were much fresher, both from the tribes who were indigenous to the region (the Missouri, of course, and the Osage among them) and from those tribes forced by the United States government to relocate in Oklahoma or some other for-the-moment-unwanted spot further west. Each of the various paths trod by the Cherokee during the infamous Trail of Tears, for instance, passed directly through the Ozarks.
Wagoner’s home was a place apart, then, but hardly pure or isolated. The radio saw to that. “I’d listen to a station out of Springfield, Missouri — KWTO [as in, Keep Watching The Ozarks]. It had all kinds of shows. I liked [country singer] Slim Wilson, and the Goodwill Family were a gospel quartet I really enjoyed.