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Porter Wagoner can't slow down

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2007

After a career marked by colorful outfits, a pompadour, a bunch of hits dating back to the 1950's, a long-running television show, a chunk of time singing with Dolly Parton and a half-century performing at the Grand Ole Opry, it would be easy to give Porter Wagoner a fast pass into the comforts of a rocking chair.

Forget about that notion because Wagoner, 79, just released a brand new album, "Wagonmaster," on a very edgy label that is home from everyone from Nick Cave to Tom Waits.

And if recording for the Anti- label wasn't enough to give Wagoner's recording a kick start, consider that Marty Stuart produced.

"I did want to put out new music," says Wagoner on the phone from Nashville. "Marty had introduced me to the people at the record label, Anti- Records...I knew they were excited to have an album by Porter Wagoner. I got inspired and enthused about doing the record then. The main people at that label were so good and so excited about me being on the record label, it was encouraging that I'd have a great group to promote the album."

Wagoner says he also was keen about putting out new music because of "the fact that it be done with Marty Stuart. He's a real good friend of mine, and he's a real good producer. He's probably the best producer I've ever worked with in my entire career. To do an album something like that and something that's a little different too. It's not a run of the mill album."

The album is different with new songs, re-recordings of previous Wagoner songs, gospel, hard core honky tonk, spoken word songs. This is Wagoner's first country album of new material since 2000's "Best I've Ever Been" on the Shell Point label. Since then, he has released several gospel discs.

Wagoner credits Stuart with getting behind him. "I've known Marty since he was 12 years old and came to Nashville," Wagoner says. "He was just a kid, and I've watched him grow up into a great man. He's worked with Lester Flatts' great band. We became really close friends, and Marty was a great fan of mine. He watched my TV show in Mississippi where he was growing up. He enjoyed that a lot. We just became real good friends."

Stuart approached Wagoner about 1 1/2 years ago to record a new disc. Wagoner was keen to the idea, but his health intervened. He suffered a life threatening abdominal aneurysm. "It was a really delicate, hard operation to have...God has really blessed me to get well from that."

"Marty and I had talked several times about doing the album, and was I going to able to do it, and whether I'd get well enough to do it, and I thought I would."

"We got together several times and went over songs with two guitars - rehearsing and me kind of learning to sing again. I really wound up singing good on the songs."

Stuart picked the songs, though he ran his choices by Wagoner. "Marty knew the music we were doing. He knew the songs that would fit the album better than anything else we could do...He wanted me to be comfortable with them, and I was. Each one, he asked what I thought about the song."

"Wagonmaster" contains Johnny Cash's "Committed to Parkview," not a typical country song because it is about life in a mental hospital. Both author and singer knew the subject well because Cash and Wagoner each spent time at Parkview, something Wagoner did not know.

Cash actually wrote the song with Wagoner in mind and gave a cassette of it to Stuart, his former son in law, while the two toured Europe together in 1981. Stuart promptly forgot all about the cassette until it came down to pick material for "Wagonmaster."

"I thought it was brilliantly written because Johnny Cash wrote it, and he knows how to write songs," Wagoner says. "He gave some really good descriptions about what goes on at Parkview."

Wagoner goes on to recite the beginning of the song, "There's a man across the hall who sits staring at the floor/And he thinks he's Hank Williams hear him singing through the door."

"That's a pretty good opening right there," Wagoner says, adding in his vernacular, "It's just brilliantly wrote. It's wrote so well, it holds you spellbound."

"That's something that's really hard to find when you're looking at songs, something that will grab you and hold you. Getting songs like that for an album is something that is difficult to do."

As for himself, Wagoner describes what led him to Parkview.

"I worked over 200 one nighters one year. That's a lot. That's more than you should ever work. When you work that much, you get so tired out. You get so hard to please. It's hard to find anything good about that. My doctors said you're suffering from stress. You just need to get off the road and rest awhile. He kept me in there about six or seven weeks. I just got rested up. I got fine. I never made that mistake again where I got tired and couldn't enjoy anything because you were exhausted."

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