Vital Signs

Next To The Last of the Singing Cowboys

Bathed in the harvest-gold floodlights of Spring Grove, Minnesota’s century-old opera house, Pop Wagner looks more like an American cowboy of the 19th century than the subject of the Remington painting that adorns his set.  A few minutes before showtime, he makes one last inspection.  Gazing out across the sparsely appointed, tin-ceilinged auditorium, he tests the footing on an ancient, wooden stage.  It is a scene reminiscent of a thousand V.F.W. halls, Masonic temples, and Elks lodges.

He wears weathered leather boots, canvas britches, a Western shirt, and an unfurled kerchief that conceals everything between his Adam’s apple and his sternum.  A prodigious drooping mustache so completely obscures Wagner’s mouth that you can’t help but think he could easily fall back on a career in ventriloquism.

When he speaks, a slightly spasmodic cadence in an otherwise  melodic cowboy drawl falls considerably short of a stutter.  When he cocks his head to sing, the brim of his Silver Belly Rancher Stetson frames a face so smoothly complected that it belies the half-century of life already passed before it.  You would think the voices of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams had been tossed into a blender and whipped into one.  The result: cool, sweet, rich, and expensive as an after-dinner ice-cream cocktail.

It is impossible to determine...

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