For several generations of country music fans it's hard to imagine a world without Porter Wagoner. His death from lung cancer on October 28th, however, leaves us with no choice. So the least we can do is take advantage of this opportunity to salute a few highlights from the brilliant body of work he created over the course of a recording and performing career that spanned six decades.
Porter's friendly persona and countrified mannerisms, along with his bright blond pompadour and spectacularly flashy rhinestone-studded stage wear, pretty much embodied the stereotypical image of a hillbilly singer in the 1950's and 1960's. For the lack of a better description, the bulk of the material he recorded would probably be regarded as "normal and straightforward" country music. And while it would be difficult to overstate the excellence of that work, many fans probably best remember him for a long string of extremely lurid and graphic songs about murder, incarceration, infidelity, tragic deaths, and skid row winos.
Sometimes, he would devote an entire album to grim examinations of topics like alcoholism, murder or prison. As jarring as many of these songs turned out to be, many of the accompanying album covers were even more sensational.
His 1966 LP Confessions Of A Broken Man is a good example. On the cover, we see the first appearance of a character usually identified as Skid Row Joe. The album's Title Track (MP3) is a gut-wrenching recitation about a man whose wife dumps him when his drinking and gambling spiral completely out of control. In the cover shot, we see a dejected Porter decked out in the filthy clothes of a hobo and slumped on the stairs of the Ryman Auditorium (at that time, the home of the Grand Ole Opry) and quite likely pondering where his next drink will come from. Porter's biographer Steve Eng reported that Wagoner "conducted field research by visiting the Skid Rows of Chicago and Minneapolis, dressed in disheveled attire, the better to soak up the seedy atmosphere." That's some pretty impressive dedication to your craft! Other bummers on this LP include Hank Williams' Men With Broken Hearts, How Far Down Can I Go, and Skid Row Joe (MP3), a downbeat recitation that wound up as a Top Ten hit despite its relentlessly depressing story line. Amazingly, the shockingly seedy cover photo won the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover Photography for art director Robert M. Jones and photographer Les Leverett. Always in search of a cheap thrill, when I found myself in Nashville recently I could not resist perching myself on the steps of the Ryman in a hammy effort to recreate the cover photo for this LP. Rather than dressing like a thirsty panhandler, however, I posed in a WFMU t-shirt for a contribution to the station's Flickr page, where they've got a section comprised of photos showing listeners sporting their 'FMU duds. The photo was taken on October 7th, about 10 days before Porter checked into the hospital.
Soul Of A Convict And Other Great Prison Songs was released the following year and was full of songs about men on the wrong side of the law. For the gripping cover photo, Porter relinquished his hobo duds in favor of the black and white stripes of an old-time prison uniform. The photo, shot at the Tennessee State Prison, showed Porter bathed in dramatic lighting and sitting in his jail cell with a battered old guitar in his lap. The album's heartfelt songs and recitations often sympathize with the plight of prisoners. The title cut, written by Eddie Sovine who was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war in WW II, is a macabre recitation addressing the brutal conditions faced by prisoners at the hands of sadistic guards. Other tunes include Mel Tillis' cheating and killing classic The Snakes Crawl At Night and Green, Green Grass Of Home (MP3), one of Wagoner's biggest hits. The song, written by Curly Putman, is about a man happy to be returning to the familiar comforts of home after a long absence. Of course, there's a catch. The man is actually a Death Row prisoner and he's only been dreaming of going home. In reality, he is to be executed the following morning.
Perhaps most famous of all is the cover of another 1967 LP, The Cold Hard Facts Of Life (MP3). The song tells the story of a man who returns home a few days early from a business trip only to fly into a murderous rage when he finds his wife cavorting with another man. The LP cover photo depicts the situation just before things get bloody, with RCA recording engineer Roy Shockley posing as the playboy moving in on Porter's wife. Always fascinated by the sordid griminess of the photo in question, I eventually tracked down the shooting location (Porter's old apartment!) and shared the story with the apartment's occupant who was kind enough to allow me to pose in the doorway a la Porter. The whole story is over here. Also appearing on this album are 3 other murder songs: The First Mrs. Jones (MP3, written by Bill Anderson), Julie (a Waylon Jennings composition) and Willie Nelson's ultra-creepy I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye.
Also worth a look is the cover of a 1968 LP titled The Bottom Of The Bottle, a fine collection of songs and recitations about alcohol and devastating consequences that come along with its abuse. Included were such fine essays on this subject as the recitation Wino (MP3), and songs like One Dime For Wine, The Bottle Let Me Down, and In The Shadows Of The Wine. The cover featured a great shot of Porter, suffering from hallucinations no doubt, squinting intensely at a bottle in his hand and seeing within it a picture of himself decked out as a penniless wino. The liner notes on the back explain why people might lean so heavily on the bottle and are signed Skid Row Joe, in what can charitably be called some pretty shaky penmanship.
The Carroll County Accident (1969) took its title from one of his best loved story songs, a tale of an infidelity that ended when the guilty parties were killed in a gruesome car crash. Other winners on the album included Sorrow Overtakes The Wine, Sing Me Back Home, and Banks Of The Ohio, a fine Appalachian murder ballad similar to the Louvin Brothers' Knoxville Girl. The cover photograph, showing rivers of sweat and tears pouring down from Porter's manic face, is a chilling depiction of a man wracked with what looks like a combination of rage, grief and shame. I highly recommend clicking on the image to the left, as you really have to see a larger view to appreciate the tortured brilliance of this photo.
The year 1970 saw the reappearance of the panhandling Skid Row Joe character with Porter's Skid Row Joe - Down In The Alley LP. Once again, Porter is seen looking only slightly better than the average cadaver as he hangs out on the back steps of the Ryman Auditorium and solicits contributions for his next bottle. As with his 1968 LP Bottom Of The Bottle, the notes on the back are again penned by Skid Row Joe, whose penmanship remains jittery. The menu was pretty much the same as on his earlier Skid Row Joe outings with songs like One More Dime, Sidewalks Of Chicago, The Alley and The Town Drunk included.
Don't get the wrong idea though. It would be huge mistake to believe that Wagoner's appeal was limited only the his whacked out songs about death, alcohol and insanity. For every track like the certifiably bizarre mental institution classic The Rubber Room (MP3), he cut at least a handful of equally brilliant (if less sensational) tracks. Check out great performances like his rockin' 1967 remake of Johnny Horton's rockabilly classic Ole Slewfoot (MP3), and souped up honky tonkers like I'll Go Down Swingin' (MP3), or novelties like He's A Go Getter (MP3). Somehow, he even found time to write the great tune The Texas Troubadour (MP3) for his close pal Ernest Tubb. Sung in first person by Tubb, it tells the story of how he's right at home in Texas dance halls like the Longhorn Ballroom, but in Greenwich Village he's ridiculed by hippies for being terminally square.
Despite a hectic touring and recording schedule, the hard-working Porter found time to host the Porter Wagoner Show, a syndicated television program that debuted in 1960 and lasted an astonishing 21 years. Though the production was a bare bones effort, the music content of the show was always top notch and featured live performances by Porter and his band the Wagonmasters, as well as just about everyone else who ever passed through Nashville.
In 1979, Porter stirred up a small hornet's nest of controversy among his fellow Grand Ole Opry cast members when he invited James Brown to perform at the Opry. Wagoner recalled to his biographer Steve Eng that he'd first met Brown in Newark, NJ in the late 1950's when he caught a package show featuring Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and James Brown on the same bill. (Did all 4 of those guys ever tour together? Who cares, it's a great visual!) In town a day early and slated to perform at the same theater the following evening, Porter checked out the show, which impressed him greatly. Afterwards he introduced himself to Brown and the resulting friendship consisted mostly of crossing paths in airports every few years. When Brown accepted Wagoner's invitation to perform at the Opry, some cast members grumbled about the Opry being an inappropriate showcase for Brown's electrifying rhythm and blues. Despite the displeasure from some quarters, others reacted with great enthusiasm at the opportunity to see Brown at the Opry. Tex Ritter's son, actor John Ritter, showed up to support Brown and was informed that James was a big fan of John's dad, the famed cowboy actor and singer. All in all, Brown reported feeling completely welcome and thoroughly at home on the big night.
Thanks to Marty Stuart and his persistence, Porter recently emerged with one final album, Wagonmaster, released on the ANTI label earlier this year. For Wagoner, it was truly a return to form as he recorded an entire disc of top-notch material. Stuart was responsible for the very sympathetic production and his band provided the backing for what turned out to be Porter's final recordings. If you get a chance to hear it, make sure to listen for the bonus track tacked onto the end of the disc. It features Wagoner and Stuart causally shooting the breeze about some of Porter's past experiences as Porter does some informal picking and crooning. The disc received extremely favorable reviews and clearly brought Wagoner some new fans. Stuart definitely deserves praise for pursuing this project, which allowed his good friend to bask in the limelight one last time. A few months back a great interview with Porter was posted over at the A.V. Club website.
A Satisfied Mind: The Country Music Life of Porter Wagoner (1993) by author Steve Eng was indispensable in preparing this post. I think it's out of print, but don't let that stop you.