August 10, 1997

Singing the Brakeman’s Praises Jimmie Rodgers, the neglected giant who brought country music into the pop mainstream, is saluted by an eclectic lineup of his ’90s heirs on a tribute album conceived by Bob Dylan.

by Richard Cromelin

Two notable things happened on Oct. 7, 1927: Babe Ruth hit a World Series home run and Jimmie Rodgers’ first record went on sale. Even though Ruth was at the pinnacle of his fame and Rodgers was unknown, the intersecting events form a neat symbolic link between two defining figures of the century.

Ruth’s prowess and charisma transformed the game of baseball. Similarly, Rodgers single-handedly changed the shape of American popular music.

He’s called “The Father of Country Music,” but that’s only part of the story. His first hit, 1928’s “Blue Yodel No. 1”–often known as “T for Texas” after its opening phrase–was a kind of “Rock Around the Clock” of its day, a brazen jolt that awakened the country to a whole new way of hearing. It sold 1 million copies, an unheard-of figure at the time.

Considering his influence, Rodgers is something of a neglected giant today. Blues singer Robert Johnson, for instance, is far more prominent in the public consciousness than Rodgers, but Rodgers was his equal in artistry and influence.

Maybe Rodgers’ art has been overshadowed by the image of a quaint entertainer wearing a railroader’s outfit and breaking into a yodel at every opportunity.

Singer Steve Earle thinks it’s because Johnson’s songs were planted in young listeners when they were revived by British rock bands in the ’60s. Country star Dwight Yoakam theorizes that because the blues didn’t have the established media outlets of country music, people considered the form more worthy of championing.

Earle and Yoakam are two of the participants on a tribute album–due Aug. 19–that they hope will restore some of Rodgers’ stature.

The collection, titled “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers,” is the inaugural release on Egyptian Records, Bob Dylan’s Sony-distributed label. Dylan conceived the project, contributed a track and wrote some passionate liner notes.

“Times change and don’t change,” Dylan writes. “The nature of humanity has stayed the same. Jimmie is at the heart of it all with a seriousness and humor that is befuddling. . . . His is the voice in the wilderness of your head. . . . Only in turning up the volume can we determine our own destiny.”

The album’s lineup reflects the reach of Rodgers’ influence, with such country stalwarts as Yoakam, Willie Nelson and Mary Chapin Carpenter * joined by rock figures including Bono, John Mellencamp, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts and the late Jerry Garcia (in a trio with David Grisman and John Khan).

The selections elicit one of Rodgers’ essential themes–the romance of the road, coupled with a longing for home. Many of the songs’ characters are on the move, and the performances are frequently charged by that dynamism. They’re also attuned to the loneliness and fatalism that Rodgers articulated.

“I’m glad to be doing something of Jimmie Rodgers’,” says Willie Nelson, who turns in a resonant version of “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia” on the album. “Anybody who’s really listening to country music now should know the history of it. They should know where it came from.”

Like Elvis Presley 30 years later, Rodgers merged previously isolated currents of American music and erased the lines of color and culture. The lean, tubercular rambler from parts south blended blues and Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville and jug band, folk songs and stage tunes.

In Rodgers’ unique alchemy, they became a panoramic expression of a national spirit that was brash and bawdy, resilient and hard-bitten, sentimental and generous, restless and loyal. His voice seemed to contain all the promise of the booming decade, and when the Depression hit, people found their lives reflected in his tales of hard times. Whichever nickname you preferred–“America’s Blue Yodeler” or “The Singing Brakeman”–he was more than a mere entertainer. He was a trusted companion.

In the process, Rodgers took so-called hillbilly music from its ethnic music ghetto into the heart of American entertainment, a place it would never leave.

The institution of country music flowed directly from the headwaters he collected. His influence too filtered into the folk music vernacular and spawned the singing-cowboy movement led by Gene Autry. Country standards associated with Rodgers include “Waiting for a Train,” “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” and “In the Jailhouse Now.”

In photographs from the late ’20s and early ’30s, Rodgers’ long face is dominated by dark, sparkling eyes and an open smile. There’s a kind of Fred Astaire elegance there, something jaunty and aristocratic, whether he’s wearing a fancy suit and bowler hat, cowboy regalia or the brakeman’s outfit he sported onstage.

One thing you don’t see in those photos is the singer’s troubled side. Like Hank Williams, Rodgers was driven largely by wanderlust and physical pain. He contracted tuberculosis in his mid-20s, and the illness often laid him low.

In the end he was numbed by morphine and alcohol, propped up on pillows for his final recording sessions in New York. He was 35 when he died in his hotel room there on May 26, 1933.

But unlike Williams, Rodgers didn’t channel his pain into a music haunted by doom. To the contrary, he seemed to delight in outrunning the inevitable. As if aware that time might be short, he packed an astounding number of landmark recordings into a six-year career, and he defied common sense and medical advice as he crisscrossed the country playing tent shows and theaters.

Rodgers was born in Meridian, Miss., the son of a railroad worker, and he followed that profession for more than a decade starting in his teens. He traversed the continent working a variety of jobs, including brakeman and baggage handler. Along the way he absorbed regional musical styles, and he learned songs from the hobos he befriended (and whom he often joined on boxcar journeys). He had begun playing music as a child, and he performed at dances and tent shows between jobs, but he didn’t pursue music seriously until his health ended his railroad career in his late 20s.

His break came when Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Co. held auditions for local talent in Bristol, Tenn. Late in 1927, Rodgers recorded in RCA-Victor’s Camden, N.J., studios. One of the songs was “Blue Yodel No. 1,” which enjoyed unprecedented sales and introduced Rodgers’ vocal signature.

Rodgers was in gear, and before his death he cut a total of 110 sides for Victor. They not only form the cornerstone of country music, but they also illustrate how an inspired individualist can transcend genres. (His entire recorded output is available on a series of eight CDs on Rounder Records.)

The singer didn’t defy conventions so much as blithely disregard them. He recorded with a black blues guitarist and Hawaiian ensembles (thus introducing the steel guitar to the country music vocabulary), traditional string bands and jazz combos.

On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” cut during a 1930 session in Hollywood, Rodgers was accompanied by Louis Armstrong. Rodgers also shared microphones with the Carter Family and a Louisville jug band.

“He was a good enough musician and singer to sing any of those things,” observes the equally eclectic Willie Nelson. “He really did let me know that you can stretch out and do different things. You don’t have to just sing three-chord songs all your life.”

Rodgers by no means assembled a flawless catalog. His own writing, both alone and with collaborators, was inconsistent. He was forever short of material for his sessions, so he couldn’t always afford to be discriminating. But his voice could bring life to even the most contrived lyric. His dry twang was deceptively simple, his yodels technically uncomplicated but emotionally true. His repertoire of slurs, dips and liquid croons formed an individual style that would form the template for country singing. More important, they defined a unique artist.

“What I learned from listening to Jimmie Rodgers,” says Yoakam, whose lean, “warts and all” version of “Blue Yodel No. 1” closes the tribute album, “is that you have to ignore and block out any other voices–emotional voices–or contaminating noise from your mind and listen only to your own voice. Don’t be singing or writing to satisfy anyone but yourself. . . .

“It’s a very bold undertaking, it’s a demanding undertaking, and it’s a musical gauntlet that he threw down to any singer-songwriter who follows him. And it’s not easily picked up and carried.”