Not always as David Lynch as this picture might suggest
1. Carl Smith: “Trademark” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Porter Wagoner was 25, give or take, when he first signed with RCA Victor as an unproven regional country singer from rural Missouri. He went a year before scoring his first hit, and then it wasn’t even his. Wagoner wrote “Trademark” for Carl Smith, June Carter’s husband at the time, in 1953, and the song went to #2 on the country charts. “Trademark” is basically a novelty song; it’s a quick little song about loverman swagger and nothing much else: “Well, there’s no denying / You’ll soon be sighing / It’s what I’m noted for.” Given that Wagoner would later make his name largely on the strength of stoic, dignified songs about depression and nostalgia and violence, “Trademark” feels pretty atypical, but it’s really not. Wagoner was a consummate professional, and he spent most of his career deeply entrenched in Nashville’s assembly line. That’s not to say that he couldn’t rebel when he wanted to; when Wagoner invited James Brown to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1979, it must’ve seemed like the apocalypse had come to town. But more often he was content to play a role in a defined system, and that’s what “Trademark” was: a breezy hit for a guy who was on a nice little run at the time.
2. “A Satisfied Mind” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This one, from 1955, is Wagoner’s first #1 solo hit, and it was a lot closer to the style he’d eventually build for himself: a sad, slow waltz sung from the perspective of a rich man who lost everything but gained perspective in the process. Wagoner’s voice was deep and rich and flat, and he didn’t sing so much as talk, drawing out syllables but never straining for melody. That delivery lends gravity to the morality-tale of the lyrics: “Money can’t buy back your youth when you’re old / Or a friend when you’re lonely or a love that’s grown cold.” There’s no narrative here, so the lyrics only begin to hint at the melodrama he’d indulge in later in his career.
3. “Misery Loves Company” Preview/Buy from iTunes
During the mid-50s, Wagoner had been a cast-member on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee. After leaving the show in 1956, though, he moved to Nashville and joined the Opry, fully becoming a part of the Nashville establishment. In 1960, he returned to TV, hosting The Porter Wagoner Show, which ran in syndication until 1981 and which helped launch a lot of careers. On YouTube clips of the show, he looks like a cartoon character: blonde pompadour, severe gaunt face, suit covered in rhinestones. In a weird sort of way, his sartorial excess only underscores the straight-backed plainspokenness of his songs. He knew how to use TV to build and maintain a persona, and his music also kept up. Where “A Satisfied Mind” was relatively sparse, “Misery Loves Company,” from 1962, embraced the fuller orchestration that was becoming popular in country: fiddles, pedal-steels, female backup singers. And unlike “A Satisfied Mind,” “Misery Loves Company” turns its self-pity into a sort of dark joke; Wagoner knows he’s not the first chump to be left by a woman, so he throws a party for all his fellow downtrodden. That stiff uprightness is still there in his voice, but here he uses it to sneakier ends.
4. “Green, Green Grass of Home” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This wasn’t Wagoner’s biggest hit by any stretch, but it might be the closest thing he ever had to a signature song. The song, about a prisoner dreaming of returning to his hometown, is a country standard, one that’s been sung plenty of times by plenty of singers and a great example of the wounded nostalgia that’s been one of the genre’s running tropes pretty much every since the genre came into existence. Wagoner was the first to make a hit out of it, though, and his matter-of-factness actually turns its ending into something of a surprise. He actually does sound the way you’d imagine a returning soldier sounding, and the blunt disappointment in his voice when he wakes up and realizes he’s still in prison just kills.
5. “The Cold, Hard Facts of Life” Preview/Buy from iTunes
A guy returns home early to surprise his wife, finds out she’s been cheating on him, gets drunk, and stabs at least two people to death. Around the mid-60s, Wagoner was hitting his career peak singing grisly black-comic shaggy-dog stories like this. “The Cold, Hard Facts” was one of his biggest hits; “The Carroll County Accident,” about a grisly multi-car pileup, was another. Wagoner was really good at singing this stuff; his voice has such a flat, unaffected moral uprightness that it’s actually surprising when he digs himself into a world of hurt within two and a half minutes.
6. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner: “Just Someone I Used to Know” Preview/Buy from iTunes
The singer Norma Jean left The Porter Wagoner Show in 1967 to get married, and Wagoner replaced her with a then-unknown Parton. Parton and Wagoner became frequent singing partners, they racked up a pile of hits together. Parton could sing circles around Wagoner, but the austerity in his voice made a great foil for her expansive warmth. More than anything else, the two were great at playing couples regretfully remembering failed relationships. “Just Someone I Used to Know” isn’t even a song for a couple, but Wagoner and Parton sound like they’re sharing thoughts, finishing each other’s sentences.
7. “The Rubber Room” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Wagoner might’ve been a Nashville pro for upwards of fifty years, but his predilection for melodrama could have some weird results. “The Rubber Room” is a song about an insane asylum: “The man in the room right next to mine / Screams a woman’s name, hits the wall in vain.” The vocal echo-effects, the spectral backup singing, the needling strings, and the underwater Duane Eddy-ish guitars, combined with Wagoner’s heavy baritone delivery, all add up into a possibly accidental version of country psychedelia.
8. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner: “Making Plans” Preview/Buy from iTunes
In 1974, Parton left Wagoner’s show and quickly became a massive star on her own; country lore has it that there was plenty of bad blood between the two. Still, they continued to duet occasionally over the years, even as Wagoner’s star waned and Parton’s continued to explode. “Making Plans” was the last of Wagoner’s hits. It’s another breakup song, not much different from “Just Someone I Used to Know” in form or content, and it had to sound like a total anachronism when it hit #2 on the country charts in 1980, sort of the same way George Strait songs do now.
9. “Why Me Lord” Preview/Buy from iTunes
In the last couple of decades in his life, Wagoner continued to kick around Nashville: becoming a goodwill ambassador for the Opry, appearing in the Clint Eastwood movie Honkytonk Man, getting interviewed by Borat. He also released an insane number of trad-country gospel records. “Why Me Lord” comes from Gospel 2006, an album he recorded with the bluegrass singer Pam Gadd, and it’s beautiful. Wagoner’s voice developed a craggy, smoky quality as he got older, and it lends a heartbreaking lived-in quality to this song, where he asks God what he’s done to deserve all the gifts he’s received.
10. “Committed to Parkview” Preview/Buy from iTunes
In the last few years, a whole lot of country legends have recorded their twilight-prestige albums, linking up with younger producers and collaborators and applying for reconsideration. Wagoner released Wagonmaster, his entry into this new insta-canon, a couple of months ago, and it generally comes across as being a lot less hokey and exploitative than, say, Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, partly because the album’s producer and mastermind was Marty Stuart, a veteran Nashville insider just like Wagoner. But the album also benefits from the same wizened humanity that drives Wagoner’s newer gospel albums. “Committed to Parkview,” which Johnny Cash wrote for Wagoner, is a song about being stuck in an asylum, just like “The Rubber Room,” but it’s a sad lament rather than a writerly freakout. It suits his voice nicely. A couple of months ago, I saw Wagoner opening for the White Stripes, playing to a half-full and two-thirds-cofused Madison Square Garden crowd and calling the night “one of the tremendous thrills of my career.” It was a nice thing to say, but I can’t imagine it was true. He’d just done too much.
Voice review: Edd Hurt on Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster