Aging Country Stars Still Going Strong

Slouching slightly in an easy chair as he watches ESPN, Porter Wagoner suggests a kindly grandfather. His voice has thickened with age, his pace slowed by an abdominal aneurysm that nearly killed him last year. But those lady-killer pale blue eyes sparkle as he leans forward, conspiratorially. "I used to run around a lot with women; I enjoyed that," he says. "I'm not really serious with anyone right now. I got some grandkids, and I'm kinda into them." At the moment he's watching NASCAR, relaxing a little before commanding the Grand Ole Opry stage to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a member of country music's most elite hall of fame. "You can always tell if a guy knows where his roots are," he says. "I like the real thing."

At 79, Wagoner knows a little something about keeping it real. With 60-odd albums under his belt, he's just released another, "Wagonmaster," and later this month he'll open for the hottest act in rock: the White Stripes—at Madison Square Garden, no less. Wagoner isn't the only roots-based, hard-country musician approaching 80 who has refused to step out of the spotlight. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Charlie Louvin, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson—they're all on the road again. Actually, they never really left, performing and recording as if they're on some magical musical Viagra. Wagoner isn't even the oldest guy out there. Last month Louvin and Ralph Stanley, both 80, separately appeared at Bonnaroo, the four-day rock festival in Tennessee. Their stamina is all the more impressive given that Nashville rolled up the welcome mat with the slick ascent of Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and a roster of telegenic younger artists in the late 1980s. Almost all the kings and queens of country now record on independent labels from Los Angeles to—gasp!—New York. And yet the oldsters are thriving just as contemporary pop country seems to be losing its way.

Tune in, and it becomes clear why contemporary-pop-country sales are down more than 30 percent over last year, its fans either downloading illegally or jumping ship altogether. "Everybody knows what real country music is," says George Jones, 75, who has had 167 songs in the top 100 since 1955. "And it's definitely not what's happening today." On the radio you'll hear "American Idol" pretty girl Carrie Underwood, Big & Rich's tedious covers of both Donna Summer and AC/DC, the insufferably whiny Rascal Flatts and even Bon Jovi, a hair-metal band from Jersey. The hallmarks of country's current crop are crisp production, pop phrasing and cheesy lyrics. "It sounds like '80s rock ballads with fiddles," says actor Billy Bob Thornton, who has played drums with Wagoner. But classic country is caught in a Catch-22: the radio stations that play it often won't touch the older singers' new stuff, and the contemporary stations won't play their new music because the singers are, well, too old. "They're looking for a younger demographic with disposable income," says Wade Jessen, Billboard's Nashville director of charts. "It can be awfully disheartening."

And, if you see these guys performing live, it can be plain ignorant. The pierced and tattooed audience at Louisville's ear X-tacy record store is not the kind of crowd you'd expect for an 80-year-old in New Balance sneakers. But Charlie Louvin is invigorated by the turnout, one of 100 shows he'll do this year. When Louvin (half of the brimstone-breathing Louvin Brothers, who rose to fame in the 1950s) tears into classics like the murderous "Knoxville Girl" and "The Kneeling Drunkards Plea," you get why Grandpa might appeal to the whippersnappers. The music is stripped down to bass, guitar, drums and Dobro. Louvin's voice isn't what it was when he sang with his brother, Ira, but there is a pureness to the sound. "Stuff like Charlie Louvin's is old, and it's the real deal," says John Timmons, ear X-tacy's owner. "It's new to kids." It doesn't hurt that his eponymous new album features duets with hipster darlings Elvis Costello and Will Oldham. Louvin's only complaint: that older artists often get bumped from the Opry stage for flashier acts. "I just think they should let the member on first," he moans.

The Opry isn't the only establishment joint where older musicians sometimes get the cold shoulder. Wagoner, Louvin, Haggard, Jones, Jerry Reed—none of them performs on a major Nashville record label. The fact that Wagoner, who discovered Dolly Parton and landed more than 80 songs on the country charts, was compelled to sign a deal with Los Angeles's Anti Records is galling to some. "Why do our legends have to go to L.A. to get a record deal?" asks Marty Stuart, the Nashville polymath who produced the defiant "Wagonmaster." "Pay attention, somebody!" Some argue that, just as in pop, country's oldsters have always been cast aside for the young lions. "It's an old discussion," says Billboard's Jessen. Perhaps, but this time there's a new wrinkle: marquee rock producers who respect their elders. Johnny Cash's work with Rick Rubin helped spark a late-in-life reappraisal, giving him a boost after he'd been dropped by Columbia. In 2004 Loretta Lynn, now 72, scored with "Van Lear Rose," produced by White Stripes frontman Jack White for Interscope. Someone is listening to the greatest generation, even if Nashville ain't.

Wagoner certainly isn't ready to relinquish the spotlight. He does a peppy little two-step when he hits the Opry stage, relishing the moment. He forgets a couple of lines from "Eleven Cent Cotton," an uptempo ditty from his new record, but he's sharp enough to nail a longish recitation about a man's getting right with God. He's clearly thrilled to be working. In the quiet moments before the show, the old performer points to a furiously flashy rhinestone number hanging in the bathroom. "I got a white suit," he says with a grin. "Out of any color, white will always bring the eyes on you." Spoken like a star.