Every genre of music has its dark side. Even a bastion of family-friendly entertainment like country music harbors a shadowy undertow that doesn’t shy away from the less pleasant elements of life and human nature. Proof for this assertion can be found in many places: classic country songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash or “Delta Dawn” by Tanya Tucker are full of morbid themes and disturbing psychology. Virtually every country performer from the genre’s classic era has a few skin-crawling tunes in their back catalog.
However, few performers could create a country-music creepfest the way Porter Wagoner could. For those not familiar with his work, Wagoner was known to country fans as “Mr. Grand Ole Opry.” He wrote and performed several decades’ worth of hits for himself and other artists, he introduced the world to Dolly Parton and he ran a successful syndicated t.v. talk show for just over two decades. In short, he was one of country music’s greatest ambassadors. He was also capable of writing a song that could scare the bejesus out of you – or take you into the deepest, darkest clutches of emotions and thoughts most people prefer to avoid.
Wagoner usually doled out songs of this nature a few times per album but a massive treasure trove of them can found in one place on an amazing compilation called The Rubber Room. This disc was put together by an Australian label, Omni Recording Corp, who specializes in the esoteric side of popular music (everything from country to moog records), so the set has been curated with a genuine passion and an eye for the unique. It’s also skillfully programmed, laying out the songs in a manner that creates vertiginous loop-de-loops of emotion guaranteed to keep the listener on edge and paying attention.
And rest assured, these songs will put you through the wringer. The title track was a hit that offers a disturbing account of the titular location and the horrors in the minds of its occupants, complete with quasi-psychedelic echo effects. Equally disturbing is “The Cold Hard Facts Of Life,” a chilling murder ballad (and a big hit) with a gothic sense of narrative sturm-und-drang beneath the crisp harmonies and twanging guitars. “The Carroll County Accident” was just as successful and offers a tightly-crafted example of the country story-song : it starts as a dispassionate account of a traffic accident and transforms into a tale of a forbidden relationship, deceit and a carefully-hidden secret. The final twist packs a wallop and the whole song packs a complex, shaded narrative into an under-three-minutes running time.
The rest of the album is just as strong as the hits mentioned above. There are tales of southern-gothic melodrama, like “Fairchild,” in which a faithless lover pushes her devoted man to desperate extremes and “George Leroy Chickashea,” a scary tale of psychopathic half-breed. There are also unabashed tear-jerkers, like the spoken narrative of “The Little Boy’s Prayer” and “Let Me In,” a shamelessly manipulative tune in which a little boy begs a warden to be allowed to stay with his father in jail. Even tunes designed for inspirational purposes have a disturbing edge to them: a count-your-blessings tune called “Out Of The Silence (Came A Song) features a scary spoken bridge in which the narrator recounts a dream about being crippled and the devotional “Moments Of Meditation” laces its appreciation of life’s many miracles with the idea that we will never understand why some suffer while others prosper.
The effectiveness of these songs is enhanced by Wagoner’s approach to them: the often-dark tales are backed up by the slick, precise instrumentation of crack Nashville session men and Wagoner sings each of them in a rich baritone that is expressive without going overboard. The dissonance between the gut-punch intensity of the material and the restraint of Wagoner and his players gives the material a nervous tension under its smooth surface that keeps the listener hooked. Once you hear Wagoner’s songs, you won’t forget them.
Thus, The Rubber Room is a powerful piece of work that offers a great testament for Wagoner’s skill at delivering heavy emotion and thoughts under the guise of clean country music. It’s well worth your time but you better be prepared – Wagoner plays for keeps and the songs collected on The Rubber Room will teach many listeners a new respect for the emotional/psychological heaviness the genre is capable of achieving.