At one time Porter Wagner was something of a visionary. A TV star before most of country music had anything to do with the new-fangeled contraption. Wagner’s TV show was syndicated out of Nashville and was the most popular country show of the ’60s, growing from 18 stations in 1961 to over a hundred stations in the early ’70s ( In 1981, after nearly 30 years, and his television show went off the air). Crooning and strumming guitar bejeweled in his Nudie suits and flanked by a young, buxom newcomer named Dolly Parton – who’s career was launched on his show. Dolly and Porter won the Vocal Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association for the years 1968, 1970 and 1971.
The Thin Man from West Plains, Missouri, was coming to Manhattan for the first time in nearly 20 years to play some of his many hits and showcase some work off his forthcoming CD from Anti records, the Marty Stuart produced “The Wagonmaster.”. I find myself at a 7:30pm sold-out show at Joe’s Pub on the East Side (claustrophobic even by Manhattan standards) among the devotees.
After a warm and heartfelt introduction by Mart Stuart, which included a story of when Stuart was shopping the CD around Nashville nobody was biting. “So we went to Los Angeles and approached Anti / Epitaph, that’s right we had to go to a punk label to make real Country Music.”
Then the man hisself entered the stage looking younger than his almost 80 years, still tall and thin and donning a spangled white Nudie suit and jeweled boots. Maty and Porter then took seats donning acoustics and began a trip through a simpler time, starting the show with “Satisfied Mind.”
Stuart played backup guitar like the master he is while Porter strummed occasionally on his acoustic and read the lyrics from his music stand.
Porter was in a jovial mood and joked with the audience like that did back in the day. He missed some of the lyrics and explained it away as “That used to be Dolly’s part. I called Dolly and told her I was coming to New York said “They are some of the nicest people you’ll meet.” First time she ever told me thee truth.” He cracked.
Porter sang the song that sat in Stuart’s studio for about 30 years after Johnny Cash gave his then band guitarist (and son-in-law) a song about being institutionalized (Porter and Cash were both) “Committed to Parkview.” Marty told the story “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.’ Cash gave me a cassette of the song in 1981 and asked me to get it to Porter. 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. now you got it!” Porter laughed.
Then came the “Big Sandy River,” “The Rubber Room” and the classic “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
Porter told a tale (after prompted by Stuart by a ‘fan question”) about seeing Hank Williams play in Arkansas when he was Young and then honored Hank by preforming Luke the Drifter morality tale “Men with Broken Hearts” and “Lonesome Whistle.”
Then the pair played the solemn “Cold Hard Facts of Life” and the ironically funny “I’ve Enjoyed As Much of This As I Can Stand.”
Marty played a blistering mandolin solo and then it was on to “Dooley”, “..about a man who created a wood picture beautiful woman.” Porter said as he introduced the song.
The fact that Porter Wagner was sitting here in this room was even more miraculous after Porter tells the story of how before recording the new CD last summer he almost died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. “I’m truly blessed to be here.” He said, tearing up a moment. “I’m truly blessed.”
As were we.