BY ED KING ROCK CONNOISSEUR My in-laws live in a rural part of Pennsylvania. They’re not what I’d call “country folk,” but they live around more country folk than I ever met growing up in Port Richmond. Driving up their street, I always appreciate that ranch house with shutters in the shape of fiddles surrounded by musical notes. “That’s gotta be one serious country fan’s home!” I’d think to myself, but never shared the thought with anyone but my wife. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, my father-in-law said, “Let’s take a walk. I want you to meet a neighbor. He’s a music fan like you. He’s got a lot of old albums for sale in his basement that I thought you might like.” How sweet of my father-in-law! Little did he know I grew up associating country music with Hee-Haw and The Eagles, not liking the show nor the band, but in the last few years, I’d grown to the point where I now respected all musicians and music fans as brothers-in-arms, (OK, everyone but the pony-tailed fusion fans, I STILL hate those guys). I was game for meeting the man with the fiddle-shaped shutters.
Turns out this older gentleman was a former country music DJ and promoter. As I flipped through bins of old records that, sadly, meant almost nothing to me, he told me tales of having booked the likes of a young Willie Nelson at a town fair in Central PA. “He was smokin’ those funny cigarettes the whole weekend. I didn’t know what he was smoking!” His stories were light and, although 30 to 40 years old, retained a music lover’s enthusiasm and faith. Every few records through the stack he’d ask me if I wanted buy this one or that one. He’d tell me some tidbit about the artist’s contribution to the country music canon, but all I could see was a Brylcreem-wearing square in a bad suit. I couldn’t get my rock-and-roll mind around any of these albums. One artist looked goofier than the next. My father-in-law also looked over my shoulder with anticipation, hoping I’d leave with something, anything that would help him better understand what motivates us music cats of all ages and genres. The heat was on, a transaction needed to be completed, so I bought a couple of Charlie Rich albums and listened to a few more stories about the likes of Porter Wagoner and other well-respected artists I knew so little about. That was a few years ago, and to say I’ve learned a whole lot more about country music would be a lie, but I do know more about what I do and don’t like. Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member Porter Wagoner, the man so crucial to Dolly Parton’s development (as an artist, wiseass!) that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” about him, has a new album called Wagonmaster out on the very cool and artist-friendly Anti- label. By all accounts, Wagoner is a frail and very old man these days, but you wouldn’t know that from his strong, confident vocals, or the album’s down-to-earth production, or for that matter, his July 24th gig opening for White Stripes and Grinderman at Madison Square Garden. The production and backing is courtesy of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. I like it when country music sounds like it was played live by old friends in a simple room with well-worn instruments. Wagonmaster has this feel in spades, and Wagoner’s plainspoken delivery on songs like “Be a Little Quieter,” “A Place to Hang My Hat,” and “A Fool Like Me” display all the enthusiasm and faith of my friend with the fiddle-shaped shutters. The song most likely to garner serious ink is “Committed to Parkview,” which was written for Wagoner by his friend Johnny Cash and never recorded [by Wagoner] until now. Beginning with one of many spoken-word introductions on the album, as if Wagoner can’t get the old television variety show host out of his system, a verse slowly develops into an underneath-the-bottle, or whatever, report from a real-life sanitarium where both Wagoner and Cash spent some time. Unlike the sort of harrowing approach one would expect from Cash performing this song, however, Wagoner underplays the story with the sort of ease that I imagine has made fans feel comfortable dropping in on his treasure trove basement of country music riches lo these many years.