Personalities | Jimmie Rodgers | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country
Although routinely – and fairly – described as the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933) was actually something more. Having established himself in that genre, he gradually moved towards mainstream popular music and, but for his early death, would probably have found a niche there.
So far as country music is concerned, though, his unique achievement was to create a wholly original concept out of apparently disparate elements, fusing cowboy and hobo songs with the blues – and adding a yodel. That single invention inspired dozens of copyists, from artists still finding their feet for the journey to fame, such as Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Cliff Carlisle, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb, to many lesser figures who were content to make slight adaptations to Rodgers’ model.
‘T For Texas, T For Tennessee’
Rodgers grew up in Meridian, Mississippi. His career as a railroader was cut short by tuberculosis and he moved to the mountain resort of Asheville, North Carolina, where he played banjo in a string band. It was with those musicians that he auditioned for Victor in 1927, but Ralph Peer preferred him on his own, singing and playing guitar, and recorded him that way. At a second session that year he produced ‘Blue Yodel (T For Texas)’, a humorous 12-bar blues with a yodelled refrain. It sold in the hundreds of thousands and was succeeded by a dozen more ‘Blue Yodel’ titles and numerous other songs in a similar format, which Rodgers and Peer artfully differentiated by deploying Hawaiian-style guitarists, fiddlers and other musicians, even bringing in the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong for ‘Blue Yodel No. 9’.
Interspersed among these blues compositions were sentimental songs, western themes, songs rooted in the experiences of railroaders, gamblers and prisoners, and a group of topographical songs, such as ‘Peach Pickin’ Time In Georgia’ and ‘Roll Along Kentucky Moon’, which were calculated to appeal to regional audiences. Many were written or co-written by Rodgers himself, some with his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams, while others were supplied by professional songwriters. Whatever the material, Rodgers unfailingly personalized it with his warm, ingratiating delivery, plainly drawn guitar lines and, of course, the yodel.
Like everyone else in country music, Rodgers could not sustain the huge sales of his early records through the lean years of the Depression. Unlike almost everyone else, he had another market, overseas. Most of his releases came out in the UK and Australia (where he exercised enormous influence on the nascent record industry, practically blueprinting the style of artists like Tex Morton), and many also in India, Ireland and other territories.
‘Got The T. B. Blues’
Throughout what an album title would later call his ‘short but brilliant life’ Rodgers made personal appearances on major theatre circuits and, in a publicist’s neat move, toured with the humorist Will Rogers. He even made a short film, The Singing Brakeman (1929). But he had never shaken off tuberculosis – a fact that inspired a couple of blackly humorous...
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