Other country stars of the '60s shone brighter while other artists were more influential, but no other country singer captured the sound and style of Nashville in the '60s like Porter Wagoner. He had been a fixture in Music City since the mid '50s, after his single "A Satisfied Mind" went to number one, but the '60s was Porter's decade as he racked up Top 10 singles -- "Misery Loves Company," "Green Green Grass of Home," "Skid Row Joe," "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" -- and, more importantly, he began his long-running television program The Porter Wagoner Show in 1960. On that show, he cut a striking figure in his flamboyant Nudie suits and, along with his appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, he displayed a taste for both cornball kitsch and hard country, with the kitsch slightly overshadowing his excellent traditional country thanks in no small part to his flair for the dramatic, as evident on his classic album covers and melodramatic hits like 1969's "The Carroll County Accident." By the time "The Carroll County Accident" reached number two on the country charts, he had switched out his old duet partner Norma Jean in favor for Dolly Parton. Porter was instrumental in bringing Dolly her stardom and once she left Wagoner and the show behind, it often seemed that the mainstream press suggested his only major contribution was launching Parton's career -- a ludicrous suggestion, of course, as he had a formidable legacy of his own. Nevertheless, the fact that his biggest hits captured the feeling of the decade so well, it was hard for latter generations to hear the excellence of his best music.
Fortunately, Wagoner -- who passed away on Sunday, October 28, at the age of 80 after a battle with lung cancer -- did live to see his reputation get restored, as he released a final album called Wagonmaster this past June. Produced by Marty Stuart and released on Anti, Wagonmaster was a pure, straightahead country album that captured his essence the way his Nashville records didn't, but even those are aging well, as evidenced by Omni's recent release The Rubber Room, a 29-track compilation of his strangest '60s and '70s sides, suggesting that there was much more to Wagoner than Nudie suits. But those Nudie suits have their appeal too, and anyone brought on board with either of these two recent releases may be able to better hear how good those big mainstream hits of the '60s were, best heard on the 2002 comp RCA Country Legends. And anybody that hasn't spent time with Porter could use any of these three discs as a starting point -- they're all different, to be sure, but they'll all build an appreciation for a country singer whose enormous popularity strangely enough tended to masquerade his achievements and made him somewhat underappreciated. (Further recommended listening: Omni, who released The Rubber Room, has also recently released a Norma Jean compilation called I Guess That Comes from Being Poor, which contains all of her 1972 LP of the same name and the 1968 LP Body and Mind, plus several other cuts.)