Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise

AUGUST 21, 2000: 

Porter Wagoner The Best I've Ever Been (Shell Point Records)

If you only know country star Porter Wagoner as the colorfully sequined former singing partner of Dolly Parton, then you don't really have a clue to his real importance as a talented cultural icon and musical trendsetter.

Still going strong at 72, Wagoner is currently celebrating his 43rd year as a Grand Ole Opry member with his first album of all-new material in almost two decades, The Best I've Ever Been.

Although Wagoner is a talented songwriter in his own right (with over 81 charted singles) and one of the first country singers to produce his own records (including this one), The Best I've Ever Been features the tunesmithing skills of Damon Black, with nary a Wagoner original in sight. Wagoner has known Black since 1975, when Black came to Nashville from Wagoner's home state of Missouri to try his hand at being a songwriter.

Black returned to the family farm in the 1970s after his Nashville sojourn didn't pan out as planned. A windfall came his way when he sold a tract of land to business interests for a reported $3.5 million. Remembering Wagoner's encouragement from his Nashville days, he prepared a 22-song tape just for Wagoner, who thought enough of the songs to come out of recording retirement to make a new album.

And while Wagoner's return to recording may not exactly be the best he's ever been, it's pretty damn close, and the album succeeds on every level. Wagoner is still in fine voice with his half-sung, half-spoken delivery, and his pipes are as reliable as they ever were. And as far as interpreting a good song, Wagoner infuses every lyric on The Best I've Ever Been with the conviction of a man who's lived and seen the world and still knows the pain.

The nostalgic tunes are where Wagoner really shines -- a May-December romance break-up song called "I Knew This Day Would Come," "House On Mulberry Street," "Broken Hearts Beat On," and "I'd Like To Make That Same Mistake Again." The other material is strong as well (particularly "The Fiddle And The Bow"), and it's just a bit ironic that the CD is an independent effort on Nashville-based Shell Point Records.

Outside of the background singers laying it on a little too thick in spots, The Best I've Ever Been is a triumphant return to form by a modern-day country and western pioneer, "the Thin Man from West Plains," the head Wagonmaster himself, the inimitable Porter Wagoner. -- David D. Duncan


Echolyn Cowboy Poems Free (Velveteen)

This one is a real heartbreaker, a true tearjerker and, finally, a coffee-table coaster, an indoor Frisbee and so on -- use your imagination, hopefully more vigorously than did Echolyn before inflicting this almost unrelenting mediocrity upon all of you and those of us who believed in them based on, if nothing else, 1995's superb As The World.

Toward the very end of 1999, some of the regular contributors to this publication's "Turn Up That Noise" music review column were instructed to write critical pieces based on the notion that certain releases of the decade had unfortunately "fallen through the cracks." The point, of course, was to take one last opportunity to celebrate music deemed "neglected by the industry and the public" according to the reviewers involved. In my piece, I chose to point out the inarguable fact (yep!) that neo-progressive rocking small-town Pennsylvanians Echolyn had, in the year 1995, submitted one masterpiece of an album called As The World, a heroic effort for which they received near criminal neglect by their lethargic leviathan label Sony 550 Music, and so were neglected by the uninformed world at large.

By the time the "through the cracks" column appeared in the Flyer, Echolyn had broken up, and it looked like As The World would stand as a noble monument to a worthy band's best (soon to be legendary?) efforts thwarted by the Powers and the Powers' greasy operatives. But, at almost that very moment, word spread that the Great Neo-Prog Hope would reassemble so as to eventually deliver on As The World's promise.

Yes! (So to speak.) To speculate upon a new Echolyn CD was to daydream about new hybrid music incorporating ever-evolving sounds born of progressive masters like early Genesis, early-to-mid Yes, Gentle Giant, and even second-wave progsters like the Dixie Dregs. Cowboy Poems Free shatters those daydreams like a neurotic neighbor's knock on the door. But not in an interesting way.

Insult to injury: The sonics on this CD are two-dimensional and harsh.

I haven't been this disappointed by a musical artist or band in a long time. But I must say that despite Cowboy Poems Free's many shortcomings I still have faith in these guys. I really do. -- Stephen Grimstead


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