August 19, 1997


“The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute.” Various Artists (Egyptian Records) ***1/2 stars

Most music fans don’t need a tribute album to point them in Jimmie Rodgers’ direction.

The hard-playing, hard-yodelling “Father of Country Music” is revered wherever folks can gather enough soul to play music on back porches by the light of the moon.

Long nicknamed “The Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers managed to record seven years’ worth of music before succumbing to a degenerative disease in 1933. But the Mississippi-born guitarist crammed more into his seven years than just about any other musician dead or alive.

On “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute,” Bob Dylan waxes lyrical on the liner notes about the musician’s impact on 20th-century popular music by first rejecting his tag as the father of country music as too limiting.

“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, nothwithstanding that infamous blue yodel that defies conjecture. His is the voice in the wilderness of your head . . . only in turning up the volume can we determine our own destiny.”

Leave it to Dylan to attribute to another what has long been attributed to him.

As the first release on Dylan’s own Egyptian label, “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute” makes a loving and persuasive case for a re-examination of the Singing Brakeman’s impact on such talents as Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Al Jolson and Son House.

Dylan turns in a nasal “My Blue Eyed Jane” that may not be exactly what Rodgers had in mind, yet it still embodies the savage but beautiful side of the man’s aesthetic.

Dylan recruits such diverse contemporary talent as U2’s Bono, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Iris DeMent, Aaron Neville, Steve Earle & The V-Roys and Van Morrison to make the case for Rodgers’ universality as a template for all sorts of pop stylists.

Steve Earle’s cut in particular manages to isolate what Rodgers was all about with his snarling version of the comical “In the Jailhouse Now,” a cut that practically bursts with coiled rage at the intersection of morality and criminal justice.

It’s a tribute to Rodgers’ genius that a song written more than 60 years ago can speak to the reality of a performer’s life. Earle just as easily could have been singing about himself a few years ago.

Bono turns in a gorgeous “Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes” that aches with mystical dreaminess. The clever bombast of U2’s “Pop” has been left miles behind as Bono gets serious about the nature of musical commitment.

Is it too early to speculate how Bono’s participation in this tribute might affect the direction for his quartet when they resume recording in a few years?

Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and John Kahn bring a sense of whimsy and grace to “Blue Yodel No. 9,” purportedly Garcia’s last recording.

John Mellencamp’s version of “Gambling Bar Room Blues” will instantly remind Dylan fans of “Blind Willie McTell,” a song the latter probably left off of “Infidels” because of its melodic resemblance to the Rodgers classic.

Like Earle and Iris DeMent on “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” Mellencamp has an uncanny knack for getting at the heart of Rodgers’ intent.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Somewhere Down Below the Mason Dixon Line” is a bit too slick for my taste, but even she manages to show tentative connections between Rodgers’ proletarian earthiness and her own suburban ennui.

Willie Nelson and Van Morrison make “Peach Pickin’ Time Down to Georgia” and “Mule Skinner Blues” sound like outtakes from their own albums respectively.

My own problem with both arrangements is that these distinctive stylists pretty much overwhelm the songs with their own peculiar mannerisms. The songs still stand, but they don’t have the same indefinable “feel” Rodgers’ versions exuded.

Whereas Aaron Neville gets it just right on “Why Should I Be Lonely,” arguably the finest song the Neville Brothers frontman has turned out in years.

And while it may turn some folks off that Rodgers sometimes performed in blackface, Neville reconciles the sad racial politics of that era with the higher synthesis that great music always manages to pull off when cornered.

Dwight Yoakam’s “T For Texas,” David Ball’s “Miss the Mississippi And You,” Dickey Betts’ “Waiting for a Train” and Alison Krauss’ “Any Old Time” round out this terrific waltz down the road Jimmie Rodgers laid down for those in search of a little authenticity to travel on.