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...