The cover to the new Porter Wagoner album makes a visual joke that, for Wagoner anyway, is uncharacteristically subtle. Known for his blindingly flamboyant western suits, Wagoner here gives us his trademark wagon wheel not in electric rhinestone but delicate embroidery. It’s an appropriately down-to-earth “Howdy” for an album titled Unplugged.
The album’s release coincides with the announcement of Wagoner’s coming induction into Country Music Hall of Fame (All together now: It’s about freakin’ time!). This backward-looking context only reminds how little electricity has powered Porter’s sound all along. Give or take an electric bass or pedal steel guitar, Wagoner and his Wagon-masters band have most always been unplugged.
So, beyond featuring more harmonica and dobro than usual, Unplugged offers both the sound and the quality we’ve come to expect from the Thin Man from West Plains, Missouri. He covers Wayne Rainey’s “Why Don’t You Haul Off And Love Me” and Bill Monroe’s (by way of Cliff Carlisle) “Girl In The Blue Velvet Band”; duets with Willie Nelson on “Silver Eagle Meets The Great Speckled Bird” and “Family Bible”; and even cuts a couple of his own songs, including a haunting ode to words unspoken called “Silence In The Wind”. Never in a hurry, these cuts all clop easily, charmingly along.
Best of all is probably “Moses Jones”, a song by Damon Black — the talent who provided all the songs for Wagoner’s fine 2000 disc The Best I’ve Ever Been. “I was raised by an old black man,” begins Porter, 75, before applying himself to the tale at hand. With his rough-hewn yet still instantly sincere tenor, Wagoner could sing a cappella, and it would still sound electric.