Friday, January 7, 2011

Giants of American Music: Jimmie Rodgers

Milestone Jimmie Rodgers recordings from Three Perfect Minutes...

We don’t usually associated yodeling with country music these days, but there was a period of time where the two went hand-in-hand. Jimmie Rodgers wasn’t the first to yodel on record, but its great popularity can largely be credited to him, and listening to the following songs, it is not hard to see why. Like the Carter Family, Rodgers brought exquisite craftsmanship to his vocals, but he also brought unrivaled showmanship. He freely borrowed from the blues, jazz and vaudeville traditions, and managed to give his music a professional polish while still paying homage to its rural roots. He became country music’s first big star, and his influence continued to be felt long after his death from tuberculosis at age 35 in 1933.

Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Yodel (T for Texas)(Victor 21142, 1928)

“T for Texas” was Rodgers’ signature song, and it remains one of the greatest and most influential country records ever made. It owes a huge debt to the blues: it follows more or less the twelve-bar blues structure, and features a lone voice singing a tale of woe over a simple guitar accompaniment. But there is much more to the song than that. For one thing, even though the subject matter at times gets rather dark, his voice is rather upbeat. And it sings some truly great lyrics. At one point he threatens to shoot the woman who left him for another man, but other lines indicate maybe he’ll just move on: “If you don't want me mama, you sure don't have to stall / 'Cause I can get more women than a passenger train can haul.”

The most distinctive feature of the song, of course, is the yodel. This may not make sense until you’ve heard it, but it is a very bluesy yodel. Rodgers is a master at modulating his voice between a plaintive holler and a lonesome falsetto, and he is able to expresses more through those yodels than anything else in the song. Plus, they are just downright fun. (Although if you try to imitate them, you will soon get an appreciation for just how precise Rodgers’ vocal control was.)

Jimmie Rodgers
Away Out on the Mountain (Victor 21142, 1928)

The B-side to “T for Texas” was a wonderful song called “Away Out on the Mountain.” This is much slower, with a sweet melody and Rodgers’ trademark witty lyrics. I especially like the way he sings, “Where the wild sheep grows and the buffalo lows” in the second verse: his timing is perfect, and his voice is rich with character. And yes, there is more yodeling: this time reaching further and more consistently into the falsetto range in what turns out to be the perfect punctuation for this beautiful, whimsical song.

Jimmie Rodgers
In the Jailhouse Now (Victor 21245, 1928)

“In the Jailhouse Now” is another of Rodgers’ most popular compositions, and has been covered many times. This is a mellow song, buoyed by gentle banjo and guitar. Rodgers keeps his pleasant voice very moderated, and except for an easy-going yodel between each verse, he mostly lets the humorous lyrics do the heavy lifting. He tells a simple story about a friend who always gets into trouble with the law: “I told him once or twice to quit playing cards a and shooting dice / He’s in the jailhouse now.” In the end, however, the narrator gets himself in hot water, and the song brilliantly ends with the narrator “in the jailhouse now,” as another gentle yodel closes the song.

Jimmie Rodgers
Waiting For a Train (Victor V-40014, 1929)

In 1929, “steel guitar” (so called because of the steel slide used to play it) was seen as a novelty instrument associated with Hawaiian music. As with so many other things, we have Jimmie Rodgers to thank for making it a mainstay of country music, beginning with this classic recording. In fact, Rodgers loved to experiment, and also added jazzy cornet and clarinet backing. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, as the unusual mix clicked with listeners and made the record a hit. The entertaining lyrics and Rodgers’ pleasant, expressive voice didn’t hurt either. Rodgers’ trademark yodel is only heard briefly here, but yodeling wasn’t his only feat of vocal gymnastics: the opening train whistle sound is all him.

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