Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind


Country music is often described as "people's music", telling stories about regular folks. Certainly the stereotype of songs about lost loves, favorite dogs and trucks abides, but there is really truth in the thought that it isn't "high-minded" music, but an art form rooted in the triumphs, tragedies, and pathos that occur in everyday lives.

We just lost one of the master practitioners of this unique American art form:
Porter Wagoner, the blond pompadoured, rhinestone-encrusted personification of Nashville tradition, host of the longest-running country-music variety show in TV history and mentor to Dolly Parton, died Sunday night of lung cancer. He was 80.

Wagoner died at a hospice in Nashville, according to an announcement on the Grand Ole Opry's website.

Country has always spoken deeply to me. It embraces emotions and stories, it accepts yet doesn't idolize technical skills, and it can be as elemental as Doc Watson or as ambitious as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as pure as The Louvin Brothers and as cosmopolitan as The Mavericks.

Wagoner came of age during the wholesale embrace of country by the country at large:
Over a period of nearly 40 years, Wagoner placed 81 songs on the country-music chart, 19 of those duets with Parton, who joined his show in 1967 as a replacement for his first female co-star, Norman Jean. Wagoner and Parton were named country group and country duo of the year in 1970 and 1971 by the Country Music Assn.

Wagoner's music often told dark tales of desperate people in stark terms that placed him in the gothic tradition of country music. This was best exemplified in his 1971 recording "The Rubber Room," a song about a man wrestling with the dark side of his psyche. "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," a 1967 hit, recounted the tale of a husband returning home early from a business trip to find his wife in the arms of another man. Without directly describing the outcome, the song ends with the husband sitting in his cell on death row, asking himself, "Who taught who the cold hard facts of life?"

His image, presented by a lesser talent, might have seemed parody. He embraced the glitz and flash of the late '50s-early '60s, a style not too far from early Elvis's nod to Little Richard. But he strode the stage sure and confident, delivered his songs in a calm smoky baritone, and people believed what he sang:
"I don't try to show off a so-called beautiful voice, because I don't feel my voice is beautiful," Wagoner once said. "I believe there is a different kind of beauty, the beauty of being honest, of being yourself, of singing like you feel it."

Here's Porter doing some bluegrass Gospel:



Here he is doing one of his biggest hits, "Satisfied Mind":



And here he is early on with Dolly:



And lastly, here's Porter earlier this year:



His web site: http://www.porterwagoner.net/