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Porter Wagoner: the best he's ever been?

By Joel Bernstein, July 2000

Porter Wagoner hasn't exactly been hiding under a rock. He's been on the Grand Ole Opry almost every weekend, often on the nationally televised portion. People who don't follow the Opry might have thought Wagoner had fallen off the face of the earth, but he just hadn't made a record since the early 80's.

"I didn't want to record because I didn't have any great material to record," the 72-year-old Wagoner says from his Nashville home, where he spends much of his time fishing and riding horses. His new album, "The Best I've Ever Been" on Shell Point, came about when "I got some great songs that I really liked."

Wagoner was once one of country's most prolific hitmakers. From 1954 through 1980, the tall thin man from West Plains, Missouri had 29 Top 10 singles, as well as many other charted records, including "A Satisfied Mind," "Green Green Grass Of Home" and "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life."

Starting in 1969, many of his biggest hits were duets with Dolly Parton, whom he had chosen as the female act on his tour and TV show in 1967 when she was still pretty much unknown.

Wagoner's hits were all with RCA. The label had signed him, released a number of mostly unsuccessful records and dropped him.

But when Wagoner came across the song "A Satisfied Mind" and recorded it himself in Missouri, RCA had the sense to release it and resign him. Wagoner's record went to number one, beating out several competing hit versions, including one by his mentor Red Foley.

Before settling in Nashville for good, Wagoner was a regular on Missouri's "Ozark Jubilee," an Opry clone which spent several years as a nationally telecast ABC-TV show.

Foley (who became Pat Boone's father-in- law in 1953) was a big enough star that he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967. He had moved from Nashville and the Opry to host the Ozark Jubilee.

"I learned a lot about performing from Red Foley," says Wagoner. "He had a way of communicating with the audience. That's what a great entertainer is - a communicator. He was brilliant at that."

After leaving RCA in 1980, Wagoner recorded one album for Warner Brothers in 1982. That not terribly successful album appeared for many years to be Wagoner's swan song.

Then fate intervened in the form of a songwriter named Damon Black.

Black was a longtime Nashville songwriter (his tunes included "Arkansas" for The Wilburn Brothers and "I Haven't Seen Mary In Years," which Wagoner had recorded) who had tired of Nashville and returned to his farm.

A couple of years ago, he sold part of his farm to Wal-Mart for several million dollars. With his new financial independence, Black decided to return to songwriting - but writing the songs he wanted to instead of worrying about being commercial.

And what Black wanted to do was to write an entire album for Porter Wagoner.

"He had met me and liked me. He didn't need money any more. I admired him as a writer even back then. He wrote from the heart. He spent about four years working on writing a CD for me. He wanted to write songs that I would be turned on by both the story and the melody."

The original tape Black sent had 22 songs. "I didn't record the album to impress young people and DJs. I recorded it because of these great songs. That's what country music is about in my opinion."

"I work about 12-15 concerts a year (besides the Opry). That's my limit. I'm not going to be knocking on DJs doors trying to talk them into playing my record. The internet has opened it up for people to buy the music whether the DJs play it or not. Americana has done a lot for traditional country music. Shell Point is into what I'm into - selling records to people who like your style of music."

(And yes, Virginia, there is a www.porterwagoner.com. Wade through all the Gram Parsons info that for some reason dominates the site and you can sample or download Wagoner's album.)

Wagoner is one of the few country artists to ever embrace the "concept" album. Albums like "Skid Row Joe," "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life" and "The Farmer" contained songs dealing with a single subject. He even had an entire album devoted to insanity. So, it wasn't too big a leap to record an album containing only songs by one writer.

Black's new songs had the things Wagoner looks for.

"Melody and what the song is saying. If it's a unique way of saying something, a fresh idea. What makes a great song is that it have simplicity, but depth as well. Say it in as few words as possible, but with some meat to it."

"'Watching Eagles Fly' is a brilliant title. Two people in love, and she loved to watch the robins and bluebirds. Now she's watching eagles. If she was as far away as they are, she'd be gone. She's looking for a reason to leave. That's not just a bubblegum song."

Wagoner describes "I Knew This Day Would Come" as "a great song about a new subject." A young woman marries a man twice her age. Age makes no difference, she says. Eventually she leaves him for a man half her age. Age makes no difference, he tells her. The old man knows better.

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