Ghost songs are hardly without precedent in country music, with varied hits like Lefty Frizzell’s classic “The Long Black Veil” (also made famous by Johnny Cash in Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison), David Allan Coe’s pick-up by Hank Williams’ ghost in his big hit “The Ride,” and Red Sovine’s recitation about the occasional reappearance of the ghost of a trucker who swerved to his death to avoid crashing into a busload of kids.
On Marty Stuart’s stunning new album Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions), he revives both the ghost song genre and the memory of his late friend, country music legend Porter Wagoner, who died Oct. 28, 2007.
In “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” which Stuart wrote during his airplane flight following Wagoner’s funeral, he somberly relates an eerie meeting with a ghostly man, “hair of pure silver, almost like a crown of glory on top,” with a familiar voice that “brought me comfort and peace,” who offers the world-weary stranger words of encouragement, at the site of Wagoner’s grave.
The song is in the recitation format perfected by Wagoner on such classic country hits as the funereal “Green, Green Grass Of Home.”
“I really got a kick when punk music started, and they were singing about dark things and real life,” says Stuart, who celebrated the release of Ghost Train with a solo show Aug. 30 at Joe’s Pub.
“You want to hear dark? Follow me to [the late] Roy Acuff’s dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry, and I’ll show you dark!” Stuart continues. “But Porter was the master of of that style of song–the recitation. And I grew up watching him on TV and hearing him sing songs like ‘Trouble In The Amen Corner,’ ‘Pastor’s Absent On Vacation’–rural sonnets that as a kid really got me, and as a long time aficionado of the genre now still gets me. He was just a master of doing them.”
Conceding that “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” is “a little creepy and strange,” Stuart nevertheless is sure that Wagoner “would have dug it.”
“I’d sit right in front of him and do it, and he’d be cool with it,” he adds–and he would know. Stuart spent a lot of time with Wagoner in his last couple years, and produced his acclaimed 2007 final album Wagonmaster–and took him out on one last “victory lap,” including a magic evening at Joe’s Pub with just the two of them.
“The minute I walked in the place [on Aug. 30] it came flooding back to me,” he says. “I saw that empty stool on stage and thought of it, and it’s why I wanted do ‘Porter Wagoner’s Grave’ at the end of the show and share with those who were also there that night.”
He continues: “That night set up the final chapter of his life. We were just coming off making the record and were hoping good things would happen–and someone from the White Stripes was there and invited Porter to play Madison Square Garden! But the thing I remember most about Joe’s Pub was that Porter had been following me blindly, but at the airport the next day, he said, ‘If you say, ‘Jump out of the plane, I’ll do it! I see what you’re talking about.’ Because I had told him there was an entire planet outside of the Grand Ole Opry that would be glad to see you, but being the elder statesman of the Opry, he didn’t understand any of that. Until Joe’s Pub.”
Porter Wagoner played Joe’s Pub with Marty Stuart on Mar. 30, 2007. Backed by Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, he opened for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden on July 24.
“Jack White called me before the Garden show and asked if Porter would do ‘The Rubber Room,'” says Stuart. “It was one of his favorite songs.”
Wagoner did in fact perform his classic song about the plight of a mental hospital inmate in his unforgettable opening set for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden.
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