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Book Review: Waiting For A Train: Jimmy Rodgers’s America edited by Mary Davis and Warren Zanes

Jimmy Rodgers was arguably the very first multimedia star. In a career cut tragically short by tuberculosis, he recorded prolifically, crossing musical boundaries seemingly at will. He also managed to craft varying personas to broaden his appeal among various demographics, and even starred in what many consider the very first music video. His enduring fame is based in part on his music, but image plays an undeniable role in his legacy.

Known as both “The Singing Brakeman” and “America’s Blue Yodeler,” Rodgers’ rise to stardom was unprecedented, the result of serendipity, hard work, and Rogers’ winning personality. Also called “The Father Of Country Music,” he was one of the first white men to sing the blues convincingly, effectively bridging the racial divide through sheer artistry.

A collection of essays and impressions by scholars, critics, and musicians, Waiting For A Train, subtitled Jimmy Rodgers’s America, is a by-product of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and Museum’s Music Masters Series, and is published by Rounder (usually better known as America’s preeminent source for roots music recordings). While the tone and voice vary widely from piece to piece (there are twenty-four contributors in all), the book offers numerous insights into Rodgers’ life and career. But with at least two full-length biographies available, this collection’s real value lies in tracing his profound influence on both subsequent musical development and on the very fabric of American society itself.

As mentioned, Rodgers sang the blues. About the only thing he didn’t sing, in fact, was sacred music – he cheerfully worked with everything from string bands to jazz icon Louis Armstrong. And despite the illness that would kill him, he affected a happy-go-lucky persona, a ‘one of us writ large’ image flexible enough to appeal to virtually any audience. In the process he established a working template for Americana, an all-encompassing musical format that wouldn’t even be defined (however loosely) ‘til long after his death. And he charted a chameleon-like course for the constant reinvention that helps prolong careers (Madonna, anyone?) to this day.

Pieces range from brief sketches by artists who’ve been directly influenced by Rodgers, to scholarly analysis of various aspects of that influence, from the direct (Holly George-Warren examines the career of Gene Autry, a huge star in his time, who began as a Rodgers imitator) to the ongoing impact of his legacy on today’s artists. The majority of the pieces are lively and informative, and the issues raised transcend mere biography – the collection’s focus is clearly on the music, not the man. There are occasional misfires – David Sanjek discusses Rodgers' apparent aversion to strong smells, stretching it to a significant element in the fabric of Rodgers’ fame(!) in his otherwise fine essay.

Other contributors range from eminent discographer Charles K. Wolfe, Rodgers biographers Nolan Porterfield, and Barry Mazor, and musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who launched a record label to record a Rodgers tribute album), Dave Alvin, and Rodney Crowell.

There’s very little minutia here, and editors Davis and Zanes have done a fine job of ensuring that scholarship doesn’t relegate either the man or his music to the dusty confines of a museum. Waiting For A Train, chock full of both opinion and fact, is a fitting tribute to one of the century’s most fascinating and influential artists, as well as an important contribution to the literature of American song.

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