Thursday, June 7, 2012
Sheepish Music Pleasures: Porter Wagoner, "Rubber Room"
There are only a small select number of musical artists that I adore that my wife prefers that I do not play in her presence. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the one she loathes the most, which has been unfortunate for her, since I went on a record-buying binge of wax from the Wagonmaster's late sixties-early seventies glory days. (When I lived in Texas finding these albums was a lot easier than in New Jersey, so she's gotten a reprieve as of late.) If I recall, it was "Waldo the Weirdo" that put her over the edge, since it features his signature talking style of singing, religious moralizing, and oddball sensibility. It's perfectly normal to find such a song to be completely unappealing. I for one love all of these things, mostly since Wagoner, unlike so many artists today, is willing to go completely over the top without even the slightest hint of irony. This is a true act of artistic bravery, and I applaud him for it though others may mock him.
Most people think of Porter Wagoner as a cheesy, cornpone, country-fried showman encased in gaudy, rhinestone encrusted Nudie suits, a sort of Nashville Wayne Newton. However, beneath that glittery, showbiz exterior lives the dark mind of a man who has found the magic formula of Southern gothic story-telling crossed with preacher parables and gut-bucket honky tonk twanging. Among his darkest songs is "Rubber Room," the tale of a man committed to an insane asylum. Wagoner knew of what he spoke, since he spent some time in the sixties at a Nashville mental hospital.
What makes this song even more brilliant than other Wagoner noir classics like "The Carroll County Accident" and "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" is that he uses psychedelic sound effects one normally associates with acid rock bands. This type of thing simply isn't done in country music, but it takes an unconventional guy like Wagoner to cross a line traditionalists would not dare to tread.
This song might sound kitschy, but if you listen closer, Porter ain't joking. Last year, when my job turned nightmarish and I was living 1500 miles from my wife in an isolated crud hole town, I used to put this record on the turntable in the morning as a grim joke before going to work. For about a month or so there it did really feel like I was going to crack up; it was good to get those thoughts out of my system by singing along to "Rubber Room." I can't think of another song that would have done the trick.