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Under sequins, a rebel

Porter Wagoner's improbable return to Nashville at 79 after a dire health setback wasn't enough. Look who's found the indie crowd.

March 25, 2007|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Nashville — PORTER WAGONER strides calmly to the microphone set center stage on the wood plank floor of the Grand Ole Opry here, pretty much the same way he has most every week since he was invited into country music's royal chamber 50 years ago.

As usual, he's dressed to thrill on this recent Friday night, in a royal-blue western suit embroidered with wagon wheels and rose blooms, all sparkling with sequins. The tips of the collar on his pale lavender shirt look to have been dipped in gleaming gold, and a dazzling sapphire-colored, triangular cut-glass neckpiece hides the top button. At his waist, a gold and silver National Wild Turkey Federation belt buckle big enough to catch radio waves from Jupiter.

Best of all, his boots. If, as they say in Texas, God is a cowboy, surely Wagoner this night has his boots, a dazzling gold pair with turquoise-colored cactus figures carved in, the toes and bootheels caked in jewels as if he'd stomped through a stable full of rhinestone horses.

At 79, Wagoner is the star most closely identified with the Opry -- the living and, thanks to a little emergency surgery last summer, still breathing personification of Nashville country tradition.

"This is my second weekend back," Wagoner says in his no-hurry-folks Missouri drawl backstage a few minutes before going on. He's referring to his seven-month layoff from the Opry after suffering a near-fatal aortic aneurysm last July. "It's so wonderful just to get out of the house. I didn't realize what being cooped up does.... I was so ready to come back to work."

Despite the old-time numbers he and mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley sing for the Opry audience -- they form a duo that's collectively older than the Civil War -- Wagoner's sights these days are set resolutely forward. He's got a new album coming in June, "Wagonmaster," his first secular studio album in seven years, produced by longtime fan and fellow musician Marty Stuart. It's reductive country and honky-tonk that's likely to give Wagoner some late-in-the-game career-appreciation props the way Rick Rubin's albums with Johnny Cash (Stuart's onetime boss) did.

Wagoner's album isn't as consistently stark, it just shares the vision of classic country music sung the old-school way: staring straight into the heart of human darkness. It's coming out on L.A.'s hip Anti- Records label, which in recent years has put out albums by Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Elliott Smith and Nick Cave.

"When Marty came to me and said he wanted to do a Porter Wagoner record, I thought, 'Wow -- is he still alive?' " says Anti- President Andy Kaulkin. "We put out a couple of Merle Haggard records and did one with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, so we're not strangers to that type of music....

"When you dig a little deeper," Kaulkin adds, "you'll find that the first country song the Byrds recorded was Porter's 'A Satisfied Mind,' and that when country rock was being incubated, it was Porter's music that a lot of people were listening to. When Gram Parsons showed up with his marijuana-leaf Nudie suit, that was a tribute to Porter."

"I think there's definitely a whole audience out there that isn't the traditional country audience that is going to totally get it," Kaulkin says. That was the thinking behind putting Wagoner on a show last month at the Fonda in Hollywood with singer-songwriter Neko Case. He and Stuart will do a showcase of the new material on Friday at Joe's Pub in New York City, and when he returns to Southern California for a June 10 headlining gig with Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives band behind him, it'll be at quirky little Safari Sam's in Hollywood rather than a more conventional country music venue.

Wagoner says he was touched by how attentive the hipster crowd at the Fonda was, and how much earnest interest greeted him when he visited Anti-'s offices.

"They were all real excited about [the new album]," Wagoner said. "I tell you, that got me keyed up. I left there feeling like when I first signed with RCA."

That would have been in 1952, when celebrated RCA producer Steve Sholes (who signed Elvis three years later) gave Wagoner a contract on the recommendation of Chet Atkins. He struggled for a while looking for his first hit, but that came in 1955 with "A Satisfied Mind," starting a string of more than 80 singles that made the country charts over the next 25 years.

Straight talk

FOR a while last year, however, it looked as if this comeback might not happen. Wagoner can now joke about the bedside manner of the emergency-room doctor who pointed out to him on the gurney that similar aneurysms killed both his fellow country star Conway Twitty in 1993 and actor John Ritter a decade later.

"He told me, 'I've done this surgery and I'm good at it, and if there's any way to save your life, I'll do it,' " Wagoner said. "I liked the way he talked, straight out to me. He didn't throw no bouquets on it that it was gonna be a cakewalk or anything. He said it's gonna be tough."

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