Jimmie Rodgers was arguably the very first pop star. During a tragically short career – his entire recorded output consists of some 111 songs, and he died of tuberculosis at age 33, with his star still very much in its ascendancy – he became an icon, achieving an unparalleled level of fame.
Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers is much more than mere biography. Mazor sets the scene for the rise Rodgers , a combination of personality and perseverence who utilized the advent of technology that would provide unprecedented opportunities to be heard – something artists had simply never had before.
Mazor is very good at providing historical context while bringing Rodgers to life, and the first half of the book sparkles with the easy-going personality of Rodgers himself. But with Rodgers dead and in his grave by the end of the sixth chapter, Mazor’s efforts to trace his ongoing influence occasionally veer off into obscurity. A one-off recording by obscure bands who’ve left little mark doesn’t really say much about Rodgers’ lasting impression, nor does an overly exhaustive accounting of covers by better-known artists.
But an occasional preponderance of detail aside, Mazor raises interesting issues regarding a man often referred to as ‘The Father Of Country Music’ (a grandiose title that still doesn’t quite do him justice). Mazor examines the influence of the blues on Rodgers, and the influence he had on the blues – a rarity in those racially segregated times. He discusses Rogers’ yodeling in depth, though that particular musical track has long since fallen into disuse. (It’s hard to imagine it now, but Rodgers’ ‘blue yodels’ were immensely popular once upon a time). And he looks at how and why Rodgers, with his happy-go-lucky persona (despite living in the shadow of certain death) was the first true multimedia star.
Rodgers toured constantly – unlike contemporaries The Carter Family, who tended to stay closer to home – ensuring that his name was constantly in the news of the day. And he was keenly aware of his image, carefully crafting a profile of a free and unfettered traveler and just-slightly rascally friend to all.
And that image was central to Rodgers’ success. He made even songs he didn’t write his own, personalizing the material rather than resorting to the more stilted, formal approach that had dominated ballad and folk singing ‘til then. Synthesizing and freely borrowing from any source that worked, with much of the songwriting credit going to his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, Rodgers affected a personable approach that people could genuinely believe in and relate to – he was, as the saying goes, 'one of us, writ large.'
Mazor traces the ongoing impact Rodgers continues to wield on emergent musical strains, from western swing and the Nashville sound to the folk revival and outlaw country movements. He examines the gender divide that has, until recently, seen Rodgers’ songs performed almost exclusively by men. And he shows how those songs did and continue to cross musical divides. Rodgers was no purist, and while his material lends itself primarily to solo delivery, he was open to almost any musical idea – he recorded with the great Louis Armstrong, and was quick to adopt horns when it suited the tune – something virtually unheard of in country music until a much later revival and reexamination of his work.
Mazor occasionally stretches for conclusions that don’t quite bear up – Rodgers, widely known as ‘The Singing Brakeman’ for his stint on the railways, remained connected to trains throughout his career. But to suggest, however subtly, that all train songs that came after owe a debt Rodgers is just a little much – the river of song is a bit wider than that, with many a tributary to be considered. But he’s thorough and exhaustive, and there’s obvious affection for both the man and his music in Mazor’s writing. One almost wishes, indeed, that there were more of Mazor in Meeting Jimmie Rodgers – he’s well-informed and articulately opinionated, and his own asides provide some of the book’s most provocative insights and liveliest passages.
Minor quibbles aside, Mazor does a fine job of balancing the man and his music, bringing Rodgers’ to life in a way that helps show just how extensive and deep his influence was. Dead for almost 80 years, Rodgers lives on not just through his lasting contribution to American song, but in the image of the freewheeling and carefree vagabond. As Arlo Guthrie, when asked why he continues to perform Rodgers’ songs, says, 'Because I like the guy. Something about that man comes through in the songs, in the melodies, in the words, something about his heart.'
Mazor captures that heart very well indeed, while providing a fascinating look into just how country music evolved in the years since Rodgers’ death.