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.'