Country legend Porter Wagoner recorded his Anti debut album at Omnisound Studios with producer Marty Stuart.
All Photos: Rick Clark
I'm sitting in a pub in Bolton, England, trying to finish my “Nashville Skyline” column. It's the only place in town where one can get a Wi-Fi signal, but it's hard to get work done when the locals find an American at a laptop an utter curiosity, and the pints of Guinness keep showing up at my table. I was taken when the whole place erupted in singing Bon Jovi's “Living on a Prayer” at football stadium/rock concert level to the blaring sound system in the place. I don't recall ever hearing that in the States, even when mullets were the craze. I've also been entertained by a hard rock version of Tommy Roe's “Dizzy.” Ritchie Valens' “La Bamba” got yanked for Dexy's Midnight Runners' “Come on Eileen,” and the whole place is singing again. This should set the tone for this month's column.
During the early '70s, I worked at Pop Tunes Records in Memphis, the largest record store and one-stop distributor in the South. While Memphis soul and rock music permeated the whole vibe of the store, it was hard to ignore the other universe of country music represented by Nashville, just up the road. I would walk up the country music aisle in the store and see all these artists dressed up in wild outfits on album covers. If working-class English rockers loved dressing up in fantastic garb that created a kind of glam reaction to their drab, working- class existence, then country stars were certainly making their own wondrous fashion statements. Porter Wagoner was one of the over-the-top kings of the pure country fashion aesthetic. I can't tell you how many times I looked at Wagoner's albums (and the duet album with Dolly Parton), and thought, “One day I'd love to meet these people.” Thanks to working at Mix, I have been able to do that.
Parton turned out to be an absolute gem of a person (see August 2002 Mix), and when I recently got a call that Wagoner was going to be in the studio with Marty Stuart producing, I thought this was going to be a great session I should catch. Wagoner was always much more than a “fashion statement” in a designer Nudie suit. This was the guy who had delivered such hardcore country wonders as “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry (Tomorrow You'll Cry),” “A Satisfied Mind,” “Company's Comin',” “Trademark” and a number of Top 10 hits. Wagoner celebrates his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry this month. He also hosted The Porter Wagoner Show, which played to hundreds of markets and millions of viewers for 21 years. I remember watching Wagoner when I was a kid. It was the first time I saw Parton, whose regular appearance on his show helped launch her amazing career.
Wagoner (right) and producer/guitarist Marty Stuart
The Anti Records label celebrates authentic talents and renegades like Tom Waits, Bettye Lavette and Neko Case. Its sister label, Epitaph, has a long history with punk and alternative music. So it is an interesting statement that real hardcore country artists such as Wagoner are on these labels. But then again, the heart of the real rock and punk experience was always about flying in the face of inauthentic artistry and culture. So bring on the country, and bring on Wagoner's debut Anti effort, Wagonmaster. Album producer Stuart is one of the most talented people in Nashville, and he's plugged-in enough to know that someone like Wagoner could find a home on the Anti label. After all, Stuart's friend Johnny Cash enjoyed his career resurgence thanks to Rick Rubin's American label.
The new Wagoner album is “open mics, with everybody playing live on the floor and taking the old-school approach,” says engineer Joey Turner (Montgomery Gentry, Jim Lauderdale), meaning that they recorded almost everything live. “It is very much a 21st-century Wagonmasters [the name of Wagoner's classic band] sound. To me, they were one of those bands like The Troubadours or The Broncos or The Strangers. They were really a great band. To me, they were the sound that catapulted Porter Wagoner into being Porter Wagoner. So we have honored that sound and freshened it up.”
In other words, this isn't one of those releases featuring a legend where a bunch of guest artists drop in and fill in the blanks. The players on the tracks are none other than Stuart's own band: Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and bassist Brian Glenn. Also on the sessions was multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan.
In Nashville's multiroom Omnisound Studios, Wagoner was very enthusiastic about the work they had done so far with classic Nashville efficiency. Recording to Pro Tools in Omni's historic, tile-floored Studio A, by the week I showed up, the crew had already tracked 13 songs, most of which were penned by Wagoner. However, one song of note, “Committed to Parkview,” was written by Johnny Cash. Stuart recalls the song's origin: “I was a member of Johnny Cash's band in the early 1980s. While on tour in Europe, Cash and I became very intrigued with some of Porter's concept records such as ‘The Rubber Room,’ ‘The Soul of a Convict’ and ‘Confessions of a Broken Man.’ John said, ‘I've got a song for Porter; it's about a stay in Parkview, which is an asylum at the edge of Nashville. Porter and I both have been guests there.’
One of the songs on Wagonmaster is Johnny Cash’s “Committed to Parkview,” which the Man in Black asked Stuart to present to
“Cash gave me a cassette of the song in 1981 and asked me to get it to Porter,” Stuart continues. “I never got around to it until we started collecting songs for this project. I searched my warehouse and found the envelope with ‘Committed to Parkview’ on it, with a note from John to Porter. Twenty-five years after I was supposed to and three years after his death, I did what I told John I would do. I delivered the song, and Porter loved it.”
Wagoner was enthusiastic about the song when I asked him about it. “I think it is a real special thing to have someone like Cash write a song for you. You can tell by listening to the song and the way that it flows that Cash wrote it. He was a brilliant writer and he wrote a great song.”
While I was at the session, we were treated to Wagoner's version of “Committed to Parkview,” which opens with him stating, “I been in a lot of great places in my lifetime — New York City Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tennessee, West Plains, Missouri, my hometown…and committed to Parkview. I hope I never have to go back there again.” At that point, Wagoner launches into a tale about an asylum populated by everything from strung-out addicts to people who believed they were Hank Williams. It's hard country of the likes of which you don't hear much these days. Just thinking about it makes me want to grab a beer. Fortunately, I have one right beside me at the moment.
Another special song on Wagonmaster is “Many Hurried Southern Trips,” which Porter wrote with Parton. “Dolly and I wrote it back when she first started on my show,” he says. “It's a song about a bus driver. I really liked the song and decided to do it. It's never been out here, even though there is a version out in Australia.”
Inside Omnisound Studios, Wagoner and producer Marty Stuart’s band (Kenny Vaughan, guitar; Harry Stinson, drums; and Brian Glenn, bass) rehearse a track for Wagonmaster.
“You can't buy this kind of stuff anymore,” Stuart says. “We are just turning the wheel a little bit. The more hardcore we play it, the better it is.”
Wagoner's soulful vocals were captured with a vintage Neumann U67 mic. Most of the singing happened with the band in Omni's Studio A, but for a few tracks, the facility let Stuart and Turner bring the mic to some relaxed sessions in Wagoner's home. At the time of this writing, while I enjoy some more English hospitality, Stuart and Turner are mixing Wagoner's Anti debut on Omnisound's API Legacy console. I'll have to wait till I return home to hear the finished product — bring on the Guinness!
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