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Porter Wagoner reaches another landmark

By Tom Netherland, October 2002

Landmarks fill Porter Wagoner's career. Three Grammy awards. Member of the Grand Ole Opry for 45 years. Nearly four decades of timeless music. Dolly Parton.

But Wagoner has just received more good fortune.

Wagoner's new album "Unplugged" tackles new terrain for a man who's tackled plenty of terrain. You might think that after nearly 50 years as a force in country music that Wagoner's well has grown a bit dry.

Think again.

Released on Nashville's Shell Point Records, "Unplugged" follows his release from 2000, "The Best I've Ever Been," with aplomb aplenty.

So, with the widespread success of the "O, Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and general resurgence in acoustic music, Wagoner decided to try his hand at it, too.

"I wanted to do something a little bit different," Wagoner says by phone from his Nashville office. This from the man who once recorded a song about insanity, "The Rubber Room." It's not bluegrass, though. You won't hear a banjo. No mandolin, but you will hear Wagoner's emotive voice front and center. Backed by guitars, drums and some of the finest songs you'll hear anywhere, Wagoner wins from the get-go.

"I didn't want to do a bluegrass album because there's been so many of those going around since 'O, Brother Where Art Thou,'" he says. "But I wanted to do one with acoustic instruments, and that's the reason I chose to do that. I wanted to do something that was a little bit unique for myself. I really think I sing better on that probably than anything that I've ever done."

Perhaps in part as a result to its instrumentation, Wagoner's voice - exposing the raw emotion of the songs - comes right out at you. It's not mixed in the middle or hidden in the back. Drums and guitars do not pummel his voice into submission and thereby ruin song interpretations.

"I think my voice just sounds a little better," Wagoner says. "It don't sound maybe as strong as it used to on some things, but I think it has a better quality to it."

"I tried real hard on this and wanted it to sound real good. When you get in the later years of your life, things mean a little more to you." If so, then Wagoner has much to look forward to.

Long, long overdue, but come October he will officially become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"I'm really proud of that. I didn't know if it'd ever happen or not, but it did," Wagoner says. "I thought about it for a while, but then, well, you know how that goes."

Most inductees receive a call that informs them that they have been selected for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wagoner learned of his selection on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. As a national audience looked on during a live broadcast portion of the show in August, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines summoned Wagoner forth.

Wagoner thought nothing of it. But then she notified him that he had been chosen to become the newest member of the Hall of Fame. Folks gathered around in applause as the crowd stood and cheered the unofficial "ambassador" of the Opry. Wagoner was surprised - for good reason.

"I didn't know what they were talkin' about," Wagoner says. "I couldn't hear 'em. I didn't know until it was over that that was what the announcement was. Pete Fisher, the manager of the Opry, asked me if I'd come early that night to be on the show with them. Said they'd asked for me to be on. So, I didn't know what it was. I thought maybe it was just their first time at the Opry (which it was), or they was hittin' on me, one of the two!"

Wishful thinking, Porter, but not quite.

"I was naturally thrilled, but had I known that that's what it was I'd have made a little better appreciation speech for it. Cause I just told 'em that that was great, you know, cause I really didn't know what they were talkin' about."

Wagoner looked shocked.

"I was. I was even more shocked when I found out that that's what it was. I sure was."

Chalk it up as an Opry moment, a unique one. To date no other Opry member or otherwise has received word of impending Hall of Fame induction while on stage at the Opry.

"I don't believe it's ever happened before," Wagoner says. "I had no earthly idea. It certainly was a shock. If they wanted to shock me, that certainly was it."

The new disc also has a Hall of Fame connection.

Produced by Wagoner, it includes the picking prowess of Fred Newell on steel guitar and Leon Rhodes (a former member of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours). Oh, and another member of the Country Music Hall of Fame helps Wagoner sing two of the album's 10 tracks.

"I was unbelievably proud that Willie Nelson came in and did that with me," Wagoner says. "I called Willie to be a guest on the Opry. I told, 'man, you haven't been on the Opry in a long time. Why don't you come on up and do it?' And he said, 'when do you want me to do it?'"

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