August 15, 1997

Putting on the Brakeman Bob Dylan’s Egyptian label debuts with tribute to forgotten ‘Father of Country Music’

by Larry Katz

The first release on Bob Dylan’s new Egyptian Records label, a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers featuring Bono, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Mellencamp, Jerry Garcia’s last recording and Dylan himself, arrives Tuesday.

It’s sure to raise one big question:

Who the hell is Jimmie Rodgers?

Let’s start by noting that the Jimmie Rodgers in question is not the pop-singing Jimmie Rodgers of the ’50s who had big hits with “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” (and who, considering the rash of such CDs, no doubt will get a tribute album of his own someday).

Dylan’s Rodgers comes from even further back in time. He is the neglected “Father of Country Music,” the Meridian, Mississippi-born singer, songwriter and guitarist who was known as “the Singing Brakeman” and “America’s Blue Yodeler” before he died at 35 in 1933 from tuberculosis-related causes. Not coincidentally, this Sept. 8 will mark the centennial of his birth.

The grand designation “Father of Country Music” gives some idea of Rodgers’ importance, but it’s not grand enough. Rodgers did more than lay down a blueprint for country – which has often been called “the white man’s blues” – when he seamlessly combined Anglo-Saxon folk ballads and African-American country blues.

His distinctive and often-used blue yodeling set a course for western music and the singing cowboys of the 1930s. He incorporated the jazz of the day, sometimes subtly, other times overtly, as when he recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9” with Louis Armstrong, ignoring the color barrier at the same time. His use of blues licks on guitar foreshadows rock guitar styles to follow. Indeed, Rodgers can be seen as the prototype for both fellow-Mississipian Elvis Presley (a white man able to sing like a black man) and the sensitive guitar-strumming singer/songwriter type.

But over time, knowledge of Rodgers has receded. His name evokes little more than vague glimmers of recognition, despite a raft of posthumous honors that point up the range of his achievement – charter inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame, W.C. Handy blues award, first inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Now the usually reticent Dylan comes riding in on a white horse hoping to bring Rodgers’ music back to life by organizing, performing on and releasing “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.” He even wrote the liner notes, which boast the purplest prose ever to leave the Zimmerman typewriter.

Rodgers, he writes, “is one of the guiding lights of the Twentieth Century … A Blazing star whose sound was and remains the raw essence of individuality in a sea of conformity, par excellence with no equal … he has come to be known as the “Man Who Started It All” … for he was a performer of force without precedent with a sound as lonesome and mystical as it was dynamic. He gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty…” And Dylan gushes on in this vein.

Fortunately, the music itself avoids the hyperbolic approach and hews to the straighforwardness and humility that is so much a part of Rodgers’ appeal. Even U2’s Bono, who opens the album, avoids his penchant for bombast and calmly delivers a touching, string-assisted version of “Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes.” At the song’s close, he offers a plaintive wail as his approximation of Rodger’s yodel. Aaron Neville (“Why Should I Be Lonely”) and the Allman Brothers’ Dicky Betts (“Waiting for a Train”) also bravely dare to offer personal interpretations of Rodgers’ vocal trademark.

Van Morrison, on the other hand ,skips the yodeling that’s so much a part of “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)” and neatly turns it into a jazz tune. Dylan counters the sentimentality of “My Blue Eyed Jane” by singing it in his raspiest voice (or was he just smoking too many cigarettes?).

There isn’t a single weak cut on “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers,” a tribute to both the talent of the performers and the enduring charm of Rodgers’ material, which skips from rowdy (Steve Earle & the V-Roys doing “In the Jailhouse Now”) to good-natured (Willie Nelson doing “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia”) to violent (John Mellencamp doing “Gambling Bar Room Blues”) to tender (David Ball doing “Miss the Mississippi and You,” which Rodgers sang but did not write).

This is not the first Rodgers tribute, but it ranks close to the very best: Merle Haggard’s 1969 “Same Train, Different Time,” released last year on CD. But, ultimately, any tribute album succeeds by inculcating a burning urge to discover the source.

Rodgers’ own recordings, all made between 1927 and 1933, do not disappoint. Every one of the 100 or so songs he recorded can be had on eight Rounder CDs, all worthwhile. Three standouts are “First Sessions,” which includes the classics that formed the foundation of his success; “No Hard Times,” which finds Rodgers at the peak of his considerable popularity in 1932; and “Last Sessions,” a heart-wrenching farewell completed 36 hours before Rodgers’ death.

Or for an introductory overview, try the recently released “The Essential Jimmie Rodgers” on RCA. It’s the rare music lover who won’t be seduced by this tubercular ex-trainworker’s amazingly expressive, unpretentious voice.