I innocently asked a professional associate had he ever heard of Pop Wagner and was summarily chastened: “You may as well have just smacked me in the face.” Evidently, I’m the last writer in town to have found out about this talented musician and entertainer.
Well, in case you’ve also subsisted among the uninformed, he does enjoy a strong reputation—having toured throughout 44 states and ten countries, gaining local prominence for appearances on Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion during the show’s formative years. An original eccentric, he showcases for live performances a deft hand at rope tricks and a penchant for warmhearted humor to go along with his singin’, fiddlin’, and guitar pickin’.
Never seen what he can do with a rope, but I’ve listened at the 2002 CD Spark of Life by Pop Wagner and Friends. It’s got Pop on lead vocals, violin and guitar with Bob Douglas (vocals, mandolin), Adam Granger (vocals, guitar), and Dakota Dave Hull (flat top guitar, steel guitar). And it’s hoedown music, hayride and square dance fare, bluegrass as the hills of Tennessee. You can just about imagine one of those old hunting hound dogs howling along with Wagner’s jovial crooning on infectious toe-tappers like “Jealous Hearted Me” and “Goodbye Miss Liza.” Into the bargain, you can’t beat homespun lyrics like “You can have my money/ you can take my home/ but for goodness sakes fellas/ leave my gal alone/ ’cause I’m jealous/ jealous hearted me/ I said I’m jealous/ jealous as I can be.”
In the liner notes, you’ll find references to icons like Doc Watson, the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, and such sprinkled all over the place. Wagner ain’t just name-dropping. He plays in the tradition of acoustic, original country music like he was born to it. Out of the 15 cuts, covers of obscure gems, he’s also got “Jeraldine,” an original number inspired by a neon sign he once saw outside a honky-tonk saloon in St. Paul.
All in all, it’s an indisputably charming album so well-done you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of bluegrass to be able to sit down and enjoy it. For a taste of this vintage-style fare performed in the flesh, stop by Bedlam Theatre on the West Bank in Minneapolis sometime. Pop Wagner’s there on a regular basis, every month. He had to switch the April schedule and for that month plays on the 3rd Thursday, but after that he goes back to his usual 2nd Thursday. There’s no cover and the show starts at 10 p.m. Get there early if you want a good seat: I may be late catching on but I’m looking forward plenty to hunkerin’ down for a heapin’ helpin’ of some Pop Wagner.