NASHVILLE Rhinestone-studded veteran Porter Wagoner is returning to recording at a strange time: Country radio has virtually no room for a traditional sound such as his, while the Internet is opening the door to new audiences.
And Wagoner, 72, is making the most of it with The Best I've Ever Been, his first new recordings in 20 years.
"We are exposing Porter to a whole new audience using digital means," said Nick Pellegrino, creative director of GrooveTone.com, who signed Wagoner to a digital distribution deal. "We posted two songs off the album as free clips on MP3.com. Over 1,300 people have downloaded the cuts since July 1; he's #6 on the MP3 country chart."
For Wagoner, who could have rested on his laurels of 81 charted singles, the new disc arose strictly from the need to cover what he thought were some great songs.
"I had no sights set on making a record just to make one, but this material fit me very well, and I thought someone had to sing these songs," Wagoner said.
The Best I've Ever Been was issued on Nashville's Shell Point Records, the indie label that also released the original version of Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time's controversial cut "Murder on Music Row." It seemed a good match for Wagoner's traditional delivery.
"Shell Point really loved the album, and they have great connections to the Internet and Americana music [outlets]," Wagoner said.
'So Traditional He's Retro'
It's ironic that Wagoner set the release date to coincide with the Grand Ole Opry's 75th anniversary, given country radio's current lack of interest in traditional country. But with Nashville Americana Web outfit GrooveTone.com pushing him to the Americana market, new listeners are becoming aware of him.
The MP3.com download numbers are especially impressive considering that the Grand Ole Opry and MP3.com do not really share the same audience. Randy Harrell, president of Shell Point, is aware of this dichotomy and hopes to capitalize on a younger audience.
"Porter is so traditional he's retro," Harrell noted. "He got a standing ovation when he played Billy Block's ['Western Beat' weekly radio/TV show], and the show's target audience is 19- to -24-year-olds. So we are definitely seeing an interest from the younger crowds."
But most of this younger audience is probably unfamiliar with Wagoner's material from past decades.
Capping A Distinguished Career
His career began in 1950 when he formed the Blue Ridge Boys bluegrass ensemble. He had numerous top-10 songs in the 1950s and 1960s, including #1 hits "A Satisfied Mind" and "Misery Loves Company" as well as "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "The Cold Hard Facts of Life."
When Dolly Parton replaced Norma Jean in the cast of Wagoner's weekly syndicated TV show, the two artists began a partnership that produced the chart-topping "Please Don't Stop Loving Me" in 1974 and 14 top-10 hits. Wagoner had a hand in producing their 13 duet albums and also worked with Parton on her solo efforts.
Which makes it all the more intriguing that Wagoner feels The Best I've Ever Been is just that for him.
"Country music has really gotten away from real country songs that connect with people and say something in a unique way," he said. "These songs are about country people, there are love songs and story songs. Anyone who likes my music will like this new material."
Wagoner claims doing this album his way allowed for the best results. "I have digital equipment at home and I worked at my own pace, singing all the songs from memory so I got into it more."
Songwriter Damon Black wrote 10 of the 11 tracks and, as Wagoner asserts, "He really is the best I've ever heard at putting stories down with great melodies."
The Importance Of Being Honest
Each song is sparse, with simple, honest lyrics and Wagoner's pure country delivery.
The album kicks off with "Brewster's Farm" (RealAudio excerpt), which talks of the plight of the farmer and of "smooth-talking politicians."
"Dusty Delta Memories" tells a straightforward story with unfettered country imagery a field of cotton, a front porch and a dog. Love songs "I'd Like To Make That Same Mistake Again" and "Til the Right One Comes Along" show Wagoner in full stride.
Wagoner isn't the only country veteran who has expressed interest in recording again. Charley Pride recently said he's gathering material and biding his time for a career revival.
According to Wagoner, it is good to be back.
He advises fellow artists, "Don't try to be something you're not, and find some great songs because there is still an interest. Everywhere I go, people tell me they still love traditional country."