Released an astonishing 55 years after his first Music Row recordings, Porter Wagoner’s exceptional Wagonmaster finds the 80-year-old Grand Ole Opry legend at his most vital. The album largely does for Wagoner what the American Recordings series did for Johnny Cash and what Van Lear Rose did for Loretta Lynn, in that it finds a genre legend working with a producer—here, retro fetishist Marty Stuart, with his instincts at their most finely tuned—who has a definite game plan for engaging the artist’s back catalogue. Wagonmaster may not be the singular declarative statement of renewed vision that either Cash or Lynn’s albums were, but it is an album that speaks to the astonishing breadth of Wagoner’s career, which is no small accomplishment in and of itself. “Satan’s River” and “A Place To Hang My Hat” recall his best Southern gospel recordings, while “Hotwired” showcases his wry wit on the kind of satirical number that Brad Paisley never manages to sell quite this well. “Brother Harold Dee” is another standout, ranking among Wagoner’s finest recitations, a style that was a genre staple for decades but which has all but disappeared. If radio still played any veteran artists, the stone country ballad “Be A Little Quieter” has a memorable enough hook that it could be a hit single. The centerpiece of the album, though, is “Committed To Parkview,” a song written specifically for Wagoner by Cash back in 1983 but never recorded until this album’s sessions. A haunting song inspired by both Cash and Wagoner’s stints in the titular Nashville asylum, the song is a stunning reminder that, for all of the rhinestones on his trademark nudie suits and for all of his aw-shucks humor as host of the Grand Ole Opry, Wagoner has never shied away from country music’s darkest corners. That only reaffirms his status as one of the few remaining torchbearers for Hank Williams’s original vision for country music, so, with Wagonmaster, Porter Wagoner recaptures his relevance in an awfully big way.
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