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  • January 25th, 2011

The Great Railroad Troubadour

By Joel M. Vance

I first heard the man who died a year before I was born late one night on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop broadcast from Nashville.

Tubb, a worshiper of Rodgers, played a recording of Jimmie Rodgers singing “Away Out On The Mountain,”  a light-hearted song about where you go when you die. Rodgers was only a few years from that faraway mountain when he recorded it.

I crouched before our big old Zenith console, desperately tuning the dial to get the best signal as the quavery voice fought through the static.  His voice was light and supple, Southern.  It was high in the mouth, leaking through the nose, but also rich on the palate—enjoyed the way you taste fine wine.

His guitar was brash, the yodels molten silver.  I had no idea who the man was, nor his place in history, but I knew I liked him and I still do today—a fan from teenage to old man.

Most country music fans know the story of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman (or, sometimes, the Yodeling Cowboy) who pioneered what became the backbone of country music—a male singer with a guitar.  Rodgers was the first member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and today is called the Father of Country Music.

He was born in 1897, died of tuberculosis in 1933.  He made musical fun of the disease that would kill him.  He sang about “Whippin’ That ol’ T.B.” with wry humor, personifying his enemy, holding it at bay for a few short years.  Jimmie Rodgers died May 26, 1933, only six years after his first recording.

He died far from home in New York City, having recorded several of his best songs only hours before.  The train that carried him home to Mississippi blew low and lonesome at rural crossings where fans lined the railbed and silently wept as he passed by.

Jimmie Rodgers and I each had an affinity for railroads—he had worked on them, sang about them…and I lived across the road from the railroad tracks and heard the cry of the last few steam locomotives as they sounded for the crossing.

Nostalgia for railroads is endemic in country music, but no one ever has sung of the railroads as movingly as Rodgers.  He worked on rail cars until his health began to fail. Music was a hobby that became a necessity because of his frailty.

Railroading ran in Jimmie Rodgers’ family.  His father was a section foreman at the turn of the century (you might say tuberculosis ran in the family too–his mother died of the disease).

Jimmie Rodgers sang many train songs: “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run,” “The Brakeman’s Blues,” and “Jimmie the Kid,” which mentions many of the old rail lines in the lyrics.  The rails never were far from his thoughts.

Never in country music has there been a life more geared to melodrama than that of Jimmie Rodgers, not even those of Hank Williams or Elvis.  Consider: a lanky railroader, knight of the lonely old steam engines, finds his health going, so turns to show business.  He struggles, learns to play a half-baked banjo and guitar, and sings weepers and some bluesy nonsense he’s patterned after black singers in his native Mississippi.

He ignores musical convention and is difficult for trained musicians to play with, but there’s something compelling in that throaty voice and the silvery yodels that punctuate his music.

He shows up at a Victor recording session in 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, talks his way into an audition, and cuts a record.  No one seems to expect much of it, but lightning strikes and the Singing Brakeman soon is an incredible success, his clear, thin voice and simple yodeling capturing the hearts of the Southland as well as those of some Yankees with a feeling for roughcut music.

But always the grim specter of death, that ol’ T.B., is waiting in the wings, bony hands on the final curtain.  Rodgers desperately moves through the last five years of his life, up and down, spending money with the abandon of the doomed.

There even was a faithful wife (not to mention a few girl friends and a first wife conveniently left out of most biographies).

His career fading because of who-knows- what–changing times, the Depression, lack of promotion, lack of personal appearances–he makes a last trip to New York to record his final songs.  He is so ill he has to rest on a cot between cuts, drinks whiskey to burn his throat clean.  His voice is noticeably weak, but still true and filled with the indefinable sadness that set him apart from singers who weren’t living the blues they sang.

He knows he doesn’t have much time–the title of one of his songs was “My Time Ain’t Long.”  He returns to his hotel and, alone and far from his beloved Southland, has a fatal hemorrhage.  Then there is that sad funeral train carrying him home to Mississippi while the silent hill and delta folk watch the mournful passage and hear its whistle moaning low at the crossings,

The story throbs with soap opera emotion…and it is all true.  His songs were universal and remain so today.  He and his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, wrote ballads with a Thirties feel, but an ageless impact, and he adapted folk blues that are timeless–after all, technology never cured the blues.

Who knows what legacy Jimmie Rodgers would have left had he lived a Biblical lifespan.  Rodgers’ career was slipping when he died.  He had topped out, was not selling records (neither was anyone else–this was the pit of the Depression).  On the other hand, his health kept him from public performance, so he couldn’t collect money that way either–and public performance in the 1930s was what kept an entertainer in public view.  There was no television or MTV videos.

Jimmie Rodgers directly influenced a generation of singers and indirectly a second generation.  Ernest Tubb was an unabashed Jimmie Rodgers imitator early in his career.  Gene Autry, another Rodgers’ worshiper, is virtually indistinguishable from his hero in early recordings (reissued on “Gene Autry, Blues Singers 1929- 1931,” Columbia Legacy series).

Later, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Emmylou Harris and the anachronistic cult figure Leon Redbone would sing Rodgers’ songs.  Redbone has made a specialty of ’30s music and Jimmie Rodgers’ songs are a substantial part of his repertoire.  You’ll often hear Garrison Keillor sing a Rodgers song on his radio program A Prairie Home Companion.

Rodgers in many ways was a pioneer.  He recorded one side with Louis and Lil Armstrong playing cornet and piano at a time when country entertainers didn’t often mingle with black entertainers, let alone with jazz musicians.  He used a Hawaiian guitar on many recordings—played the way today’s resophonic (Dobro) is.

But most of all he is remembered for his solo efforts.  “Just Me and My Old Guitar,” in the title words of one of his songs.  He wasn’t the world’s greatest guitar player (nor singer, nor yodeler), but everything suited everything else.  The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.  One summer I detasseled seed corn to earn enough for a good guitar.  I paid $60 for a mahogany top Martin 00-17…and later found that Jimmie Rodgers used the spruce top version of that same guitar on his early recordings.

Rounder Records has reissued all Rodgers recordings on seven compact discs.  Through the wonder of digital restoration, fans can hear Jimmie Rodgers sing almost as if he were in the room with them.

Of his more than 100 recorded songs, one stands out as a personal anthem.  In 1928 he took an old melody and adapted old lyrics and came up with “Waiting for a Train,” perhaps the ultimate train song.  It sold more than 300,000 copies in the Depression.

In it, he introduced a variation of his “blue yodel.”  It was an imitation of an old steam locomotive’s whistle.  “Whoooo!  Whooo!  Whoooooooooo!”  The whistle trailed off lonesomely like a train sounding for a crossing.

Even someone who has never heard that sound across the moon-silvered fields on a cold winter night is likely to feel a chill and a moment of sorrow for times and troubadours past.

For a kid who lived across the street from the railroad tracks and spent hours with the station agent, there could be no musical hero other than Jimmie Rodgers.

I visited the T Jimmie Rodgers museum.  It is a simulated railroad station in a Meridian, MS, city park.  An old Baldwin eight-wheeler locomotive sits on a section of track outside the building and inside are Rodgers’ memorabilia and his songs continually play in the background for the pilgrims who visit.  Most are elderly but few still live who were young when Rodgers was alive.  Even second generation fans are in their 70s.

But I really wanted to see where Rodgers is buried.  I found the small country churchyard just outside Meridian.  There was no overflowing parking lot or fans flocking to it..  It was not Graceland, with an eternal flame marking the grave of Elvis, just a country church like countless others in the South.

The Rodgers’ family plot is high on a sloping hill, near the road.  There they are: “Carrie, Anita and me” as he sang in a song.  His wife, his daughter and him.  I guess you’re supposed to feel something at a shrine, but dead is dead.

I knelt before Jimmie Rodgers’ grave marker…and there was a guitar pick on the marble marker.  Left by some fan, I suppose–someone with more imagination than me.

When I finally got home, I cradled my Martin 00-17 as if it were a newborn child and when I hit the strings, it rang like an anthem to someone long dead who sang about trains that no longer run.

-30-

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4 Comments

  1. Larry Sifford

    January 25th, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Reply

    Another wonderful picture and story painted bu tour carefully chosen words Joel……continue.

  2. Michael Patrick

    January 28th, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Reply

    Excellent, Joel. Ernest Tubb also made me a Rodgers fan.

    • joelvance

      January 28th, 2011 at 12:58 pm

      Reply

      For somebody who couldn’t sing on key, Ernest Tubb carved out a great career and I still like his stuff. His very first recordings were really good.

  3. Linda Ruble

    December 15th, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Reply

    Has anyone seen a painting by an unknown artist of the song “way out on the mountain?



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