It's not easy to get to these outposts. For example, to reach the Sac and Fox Casino in Powhattan, Kansas, where Wagoner played on August 3, I headed northwest of Kansas City for two hours, passing side streets named Oxide and churches with sermon signs that read "Don't count on miricles [sic]" on the Pony Express Highway. Eventually, I was confronted with this warning: "Minimal maintenance: Travel at your own risk." Perhaps not coincidentally, Yahoo! Maps' assistance stopped at that point, beyond which there was nothing but gravel dust and cornfields in any direction. But with help from a local resident, who gave me directions in a strained voice to overcome the bleating of the sheep in her yard, I reached both the unassuming destination and the esteemed attraction.
Wagoner distinguished himself by introducing the world to Dolly Parton, by hosting a television show that featured guest appearances from every major country star during its 21-year run, by popularizing some of the most infectiously giddy hillbilly anthems of all time, and by wearing (without sacrificing masculinity) glitzy outfits that look like Barbie costumes. But these aren't his greatest accomplishments. His most remarkable gift is his ability to take the stage at a place like the Sac and Fox, assess the red, white and blue track lighting on the barnlike ceiling and the octogenarian audience sitting in white-plastic lawn chairs on wall-to-wall artificial turf, and put on a dignified, entertaining performance.
Wagoner's sets contain four major components. There's the storytelling aspect, in which he conversationally recalls run-ins with rural police and late-night boating trips turned end-of-the-world false alarms. There's the Hee Haw humor, from vaudevillian one-liners ("I'm not saying the road was crooked, but our bus driver ended up honking at his own bumper") to zinger band introductions (of a portly guitarist: "He's 5-foot-6, standing up or lying down") to a running gag about "bo-bos" dripping from his nose. There's a question-and-answer section, in which Wagoner strolls into the audience and fields inquiries about his children's occupations and about ex-partner Parton's activities. (Q: "I hear she married a trucker?" A: "You're almost there.")
Finally, there are some of the most lyrically compelling tunes country music has ever produced. Though most were cut short to accommodate medley-style runs (which saved the life of the "Green Green Grass of Home" narrator and protected the identity of the deceased adulterer in "Carroll County Accident"), Wagoner played "Trouble in the Amen Choir" in its riveting entirety. In this spoken-word stunner, age-ravaged churchgoer Brother Ira, whose voice was cracked and broken, disrupts the choir. Eventually, a committee forms and asks him to stop singing; soon after, he drops dead.
Wagoner demonstrated his still-strong pipes on other tunes, including a few charming duets with a Parton ringer. He even yodeled, an act he amusingly prefaced by declaring, "I'm fixin' to yodel!" But by making "Trouble" the centerpiece of his performance, he made a clear point: No one is going to stop him from singing. Not the radio programmers who think he's unfashionable (a man who can pull off a purple rhinestone suit, no less); not the major labels that shrug at country legends' résumés; and not the indifferent, under-seventy populace.
Though that crowd composition wasn't surprising, it was at least somewhat disappointing given the success of Rex Hobart and other players on Kansas City's alt-country scene. Ideally, artists such as Hobart would serve as gateway crooners; novices would learn how witty and emotionally stirring classic country could be, then dig into the vaults to find the early artists who inform his sound. Because of his darkly humorous sad-sack material and Missouri-native background, Wagoner would seem to be an ideal starting point. But given the turn-of-last-century turnout at Wagoner's show as well as George Jones' closer-to-KC casino gigs, it seems that many converts are content to appreciate the appropriation. As the Misery Boy himself might say, that's a cryin' shame.