Grand masters: Porter Wagoner and Charlie Louvin return with new albums
By Mark Guarino
Wait long enough and everyone gets their due.
Thanks to Rick Rubin’s cultural transformation of the legacy of Johnny Cash, record labels are paying special attention to country music old-timers who have rich legacies in their wake with still more to give. Two recent albums revisit the music of veterans Porter Wagoner and Charlie Louvin. Both 79, their two new albums illustrate their respective contributions to country music’s present while showing what is missing from the current climate as well.
Despite the sparkle of his signature Nudie suits, Porter Wagoner is a country music veteran whose music often deals with profound despair. At age 79 he has teamed with songwriter and producer Marty Stuart to make an album that covers themes his music has wrestled with all his years plus a profound religiosity that is rarely expressed in country music today.
“Wagonmaster” (Anti) will be familiar to viewers of Wagoner’s television show in the 1960’s and 1970’s. With a theme song written by Stuart to bookend the album, Wagoner injects spoken word memories to introduce songs plus he conducts his studio band with charisma usually associated with someone half his age.
The charm comes natural. Wagoner was never a country music outlaw nor did he ever suffer from the same demons that wrecked the careers of many of his peers. Instead, he was the quintessential Nashville insider who introduced the nation to up-and-comers on his television show including Dolly Parton with whom, as a duet partner, he shared a long run Top 10 hits. “Wagonmaster” references the name of the backing band he formed 50 years ago; the same period he joined the Grand Ole Opry, later becoming the program’s host.
Despite the orchestrated pomp associated with much of Wagoner’s music in the 1970’s, Stuart creates a natural backdrop utilizing mostly buzzing fiddles, a chilling pedal steel guitar and the occasional dark tones of a piano. There are requisite tearjerkers (“Late Love of Mine”) and a song co-written with Parton (“My Many Hurried Southern Trips”), but the majority of the album is filled with discoveries. Wagoner is obsessed with mysterious characters: “Albert Irving” tells the tale of a lonesome wood carver he met in his youth and “Committed to Parkview,” a written by Johnny Cash but unrecorded, solemnly describes the clientele at a mental institution.
Wagoner sings with empathy in his voice, his phrasing designed to tell a captivating story. Unlike Cash, there is never a sense he is susceptible to similar demons. His singing describes agony but from a perspective of compassion. On “Satan’s River,” a song warning of “swimming in the warm, smooth tide,” the music is sturdy, the message assured.
Charlie Louvin is best known as the brother of Ira Louvin, his partner in the brother group the Louvin Brothers that more or less defined harmony singing in the 1950’s and crossed genres such as gospel, folk and bluegrass. Today he is 79 and, judging by the litany of alt-country personalities on his recent self-titled album on Tompkins Square, Louvin is not just appreciated, he’s revered.
This is a gentle album. The key to the Louvin Brothers harmonies is they never shouted, but found a way to blend their voices through instinct and subtlety. This album follows that same design. Louvin’s voice is frail, but buffered by soft pianos and delicately picked acoustic guitar or mandolin, it reveals nuances that only age can summon.
At times the flood of cameos makes the album feel too packed. These are revisiting of Louvin Brothers classics and other old-time old favorite by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy softly harmonizes with Louvin on the Cold War-era chestnut “Great Atomic Power,” while a guitar grinds distortion in the background. Will Oldham, Elvis Costello and Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide among others take their turn with Louvin on these songs that ache with sadness. Which is especially true of “Grave on the Green Hillside,” the Carters’ dream of the afterlife. Softy harmonizing with Joy Lynn White and Tift Merritt, and while a haunting dobro reverberates in the background, Louvin sings of “the shores of a far-off land” with peaceful resolution.