August 17, 1997

Musicians honor a father **** by Rick Mitchell

JIMMIE Rodgers, the first “Father of Country Music,” would have been 100 years old on Sept. 8. This tribute, due Tuesday on Bob Dylan’s new Egyptian Records, celebrates Rodgers’ enormous influence on 20th-century American music from country to folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Rodgers, who was born in Mississippi and spent his last years in Kerrville, was best-known for his “blue yodels.” These featured sly and bawdy blues verses loosely tied together by his trademark yodeling.

But he also sang sentimental lullabies, Tin Pan Alley standards, rambler’s laments and cowboy ballads in a prolific six-year recording career cut short by tuberculosis in 1933. His style inspired generations of country and western singers from Gene Autrey, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie to Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

As a popular white performer who borrowed extensively from black folk traditions, Rodgers can be viewed as the first rock ‘n’ roller as well as the father of country. But, to quote Dylan’s liner notes, his sound “was and remains the raw essence of individuality in a sea of conformity. … His is the voice in the wilderness of your head.”

Significantly, the invited guests here include few contemporary country stars. David Ball warbles through “Miss the Mississippi and You” and Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds like an Ivy League folklorist on “Somewhere Down Below the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Dwight Yoakam and Pete Anderson deliver a bluesy duet on “T for Texas,” and Alison Krauss sweetly croons “Any Old Time” with her band, Union Station. Willie Nelson sounds exactly like Willie Nelson on “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia,” and Iris DeMent walks a melodic tightrope across “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.”

These songs demonstrate a much richer and broader vision of country music than what passes through the narrow keyhole on to commercial radio. But the most innovative tracks are those that extend Rodgers’ legacy still further afield.

Bono, in a vocal performance more heartfelt than anything on the latest U2 album, takes “Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes” as a string-laden dirge. John Mellencamp puts a sinister kick under “Gambling Bar Room Blues,” while Steve Earle and the V-Roys rattle the cage on “In the Jailhouse Now.”

Van Morrison, recalling Rodgers’ 1929 sessions with Louis Armstrong, jazzes up “Mule Skinner Blues.” Dickey Betts does a credible yodel and adds a “Blue Sky” guitar solo to “Waiting for a Train,” while Jerry Garcia (in his final studio recording) joins David Grisman on a laid-back “Blue Yodel #9.”

Aaron Neville, whose yodel is at least as distinctive as that of Rodgers, spreads the honey on “Why Should I Be Lonely?.” Then there’s Dylan himself, whose smoke-wracked wheeze eerily transcends time like an old 78 rpm record on “My Blue Eyed Jane.”

A couple of other major artists might have contributed mightily to this collection. One is Merle Haggard, who cut his own Rodgers’ tribute 20-something years ago and remains his greatest living interpreter. The other is Beck, whose good-humored folk, rock and rap hybrid represents a ’90s evolution of what Rodgers was doing in the ’20s.

But this album stands as a worthy birthday celebration for “The Singing Brakeman.” As Dylan concludes, “We don’t salute ourselves in making this record but we point you back there so you feel it for yourself and see how far off the path we’ve come.”