Two generations of country music shared the stage at Safari Sam’s on Sunday as modern traditionalist Marty Stuart and Grand Ole Opry stalwart and Country Music Hall of Fame member Porter Wagoner provided the most engaging and uplifting hour of songs about murder, insanity, prison, poverty and adultery imaginable.
Performing together in support of Wagoner’s new album “Wagonmaster” (Anti-), which Stuart produced, they span almost a century of music history. Stuart is a model of modernity; his half-hour with his band, the Superlives (they also backed Wagoner), included a little of everything they do well: Stuart’s jaw-dropping mandolin playing (on “Rawhide,” a “showdog” solo he learned from Bill Monroe); some lovely three-part harmonies on a slow and haunting “In the Pines”; and Kenny Vaughan’s Merle Travis-styled picking on the slinky Western swing of “Walk Like That” and smooth rockabilly of “Streamlined Man.” But the song that really got the aud going was the band’s version of Wagoner’s longtime theme, “Wagonmaster.”
With that, the 80-year-old Wagoner made his way to the stage, looking like he stepped right from the Opry to Hollywood Boulevard in a spangly electric blue suit and tie, his white hair slicked back, his name spelled out on his guitar strap. Songs such as “Rubber Room” and Johnny Cash’s “Committed to Parkview” are luridly unsparing looks at madness; “My Many Hurried Southern Trips” (one of the many songs he wrote and recorded with Dolly Parton) recalls the time when unwed motherhood was a shameful event; “Cold Hard Facts of Life” is a ballad of adultery and murder whose matter-of-fact narrative made it all the more chilling. Wagoner, a master at the now lost art of the recitation, performed two, notably Hank Williams’ “Men With Broken Hearts.” Taken as a whole, Wagoner’s perf provided a portrait of an America that’s nearly gone, with faint whiffs of the Great Depression and the rural South before WWII.
But there was nothing musty or nostalgic about the show. His voice sounded strong, and his mind was as sharp as his suit; when he lost his place during “Parkview,” Stuart joked that “Porter will be right back,” and Wagoner was ready with a quick reply: “Just a short break.” When the crowd laughed, he added, “That’s why I love show business.” The audience loved him back, and why not? Wagoner showed the packed club that even songs written over a half-century ago can sound fresh and relevant.