Porter Wagoner

In honor of his roots in the Missouri Ozarks, Porter Wagoner is known as the Thin Man from West Plains, but just The Man would be sufficient. Country music simply would not be what it is today if it were not for Porter the TV host, the talent scout (He made Dolly a star), the songwriter and producer and band leader, or the arbiter of country style for a generation (Those nudie suits and that hair!). And all this is without mentioning his track records as the undisputed champion of the country recitation and as a masterfully down-home balladeer of country classics, such as “A Satisfied Mind,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” plus a dozen more that are just as indelible.

Not unpredictably The Best I've Ever Been doesn't always attain those heights. What's amazing, though, is just how regularly Wagoner's first album in nearly two decades lives up to its title. Partly we have songwriter Damon Black to thank for this. Save for his regular Opry appearances, Wagoner had been more or less retired until Black sent him a tape of the best new songs the singer had heard in years. But mainly we should just thank Porter. Although possessed of only the humblest of instruments, Wagoner's earnest, conversational singing voice has always made him a compelling narrator, and here he has hardly lost a step.

As a result, assisted by Nashville legends such as pianist Pig Robbins and pedal-steel man Hal Rugg, he's able to make the most of even Black's slightest songs via the intelligence of his phrasing and the sheer conviction of his delivery. And with Black's best offerings -- “Daddy's Old Sayin's,” “Mama's Beliefs,” for example, or “I Knew This Day Would Come,” both about age and memory and therefore perfect for a man with a few miles on him -- Porter makes country music at its finest. In these moments it is as if hearts have been broken and healed all at once and the emotional distance of our era suddenly has been traded in for hard-earned lessons. Not the least of which is that sometimes, even in your seventies, the best is yet to come.

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David Cantwell