Hey Porter

Except for old-line country fans, most people know Porter Wagoner only as the man who sang duets and grew big hair with Dolly Parton before she became a celebrity. Wagoner was around before Dolly, though — long before.

His first solo hit ("Company's Comin' ") was in 1954, his first with her ("The Last Thing on My Mind") in 1967, and his last one alone ("This Cowboy's Hat") in 1983. He didn't mess around, either: His murder ballads ("The Cold Hard Facts of Life") always were the most grisly; his love songs (the Dolly duet, "Lost Forever in Your Kiss") the most devout; his cheatin' and down-and-out songs ("Skid Row Joe") the most sordid; his nostalgia songs ("An Old Log Cabin for Sale") the most precious; and his novelty songs ("Better Move It on Home," with Dolly) the most cornpone. That he could be a great actor never detracted from the fact that he lived and breathed country music.

As this, his first collection of new recordings in 20 years confirms, nothing has changed. Hell, the 70-plus-years-young Wagoner is so old-school that this set consists of just 11 songs totaling less than 35 minutes (what his generation called an "album," kids). The cover shows he still knows how to wear a rhinestone suit and (in the words of this CD's "The Fiddle and the Bow") a 'do of "apple blossom white." The bass and drums may be mixed up a tad more than before, but the guitar, pedal steel and fiddles still are content to stay behind his voice most of the time, stepping forward only for short-but-sweet fills and solos. And Wagoner's vocals still seamlessly combine singing, speaking and whispering. More important, they may well be his best ever.

Wagoner went into the studio and recorded the tracks for these 11 songs — all written by a retired farmer named Damon Black — then took the tapes home and added his vocals in his studio there as the mood struck him. And strike him they clearly did, as both the songs and the vocals are precise, evocative and from the heart.

"Brewster's Farm" (RealAudio excerpt), in which Big Guv'mint puts a hard-working man of the soil out of business ("In Washington they stand and say/ The farmers need a hand/ But the ones that's selling Brewster's farm/ All work for Uncle Sam") could be the anthem for Willie Nelson's next Farm Aid. "Daddy's Ole Sayins, Mama's Beliefs" (RealAudio excerpt) is, as the title implies, a great roots-of-my-raisin' soliloquy, while "The Fiddle and the Bow" is a fine tale about the wiles of a small-time country singer. And "Broken Hearts Beat On" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Knew This Day Would Come" ("She came in late one morning/ He said hold me one last time/ You don't need to say it's over/ I've known it all the time") spare few words in talking the often cold, hard facts of love.

Yes, Porter Wagoner does make one concession to modernity. There's a bonus track called "When the Silver Eagle Meets the Great Speckled Bird," on which it's hard to tell if he's passing the torch to the new country singers or throwing down a gauntlet. If I know Porter, it's the latter. And if the country crowd is looking for a new hero, they need look no further.