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Week 15: Jimmie Rodgers’ White Man Blues

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

Listen here, all you rounders…

There is a fascinating track titled “Jimmie Rodgers Visits The Carter Family” on the fourth disc of Jimmie Rodgers: Recordings 1927-1933, a five-disc collection of the songs the Blue Yodeler recorded during his brief but influential career. It’s the ultimate crossover, as a “strange car” with “a Texas license” bearing one Jimmie Rodgers shows up at the front door of country’s first family. “Hey hey, howdy folks. Yo-del-a-ee-hee! A ha-ha! So this is Vuhginia, huh?” Rodgers offers cheerily, as if the yodeling that was his vocal trademark was such an innate part of him that he felt the need to use it during everyday conversations.

The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers epitomized the central dialectic of country music:

theconflict between the safety and security of home, hearth, and tradition (as represented by The Carter Family) and the irrepressible allure of the open road. Rodgers was the first of country’s amiable outlaws, grinning bad boys who offered voyeurs at home the illicit thrill of wine, women, criminality, and freedom—all from a safe distance. 

“My Rough And Rowdy Ways,” one of Rodgers’ signature hits, dramatizes and internalizes this conflict. It’s the story of a hard-living rambler who longs to follow the straight and narrow path, yet is pulled irrevocably back into a life of sin and irresponsibility by the demons of his nature. 

In Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson, the filmmaker posits his subject as the ultimate “sport,” a slang term denoting a sharp-dressed smoothie with an eye for the ladies, a weakness for cards and liquor, and a slippery moral compass. The sport is the granddaddy of today’s player or hustler, though in Johnson’s days, the type had an analogue in the “rounder,” which was both the subject of and audience for so many of Rodgers’ songs.

Rodgers was a sport, a rounder, and a friendly outlaw. He wasn’t just a singer of songs or an accomplished songwriter. He was something infinitely more difficult to quantify: a star. He was as important as his songs. Audiences felt like Rodgers was one of them. They lived vicariously through his tales of heartbreak and hedonism. When Rodgers bought a fancy car or a sharp new suit, they shared in his triumph: One of their own had made good. Rodgers had a genius for making listeners feel like he was expressing their thoughts in ways they never could. The naughtiness of Rodgers’ work gives it an exhilarating element of danger; the affability renders it safe. Rodgers made audiences feel like he was singing directly to them, without the need for intermediaries or middlemen. (That kind of direct emotional connection with an audience is something I’ve strived for my entire career, especially since the A.V. Club implemented blogs and message boards. Hopefully, A.V. Club readers feel like they know me the same way audiences felt they knew Jimmie Rodgers.)

Listening to Jimmie Rodgers for the first time, I was struck by how little in his oeuvre sounds explicitly country. As his “America’s Blue Yodeler” title suggests, Rodgers was first and foremost a bluesman. As made apparent in Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed The Pop Sounds Of A Century, Rodgers was a hero and/or formative influence on Robert Johnson, Leadbelly (whom promoter Alan Lomax dissuaded from covering Rodgers, on the questionable grounds that it wasn’t the kind of thing an exemplar of black authenticity should be doing), B.B King, and Howling Wolf, who credited Rodgers’ yodels as the inspiration for his own trademark growl. He also inspired Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and George Jones. When people call country music or its honky-tonk derivation “white man’s blues,” this is what they’re talking about.

Just about the only major country icon Rodgers didn’t seem to influence was the man he seemed to have the most in common with: Hank Williams. Beyond a shared affinity for yodeling and the blues, the two men shared a history of ill health and early deaths. Williams died under mysterious circumstances at 29. Rodgers lost his long battle with tuberculosis at 35. If any white man had a God-given right to sing the blues, it was Rodgers. 

Williams told anyone who would listen that he didn’t particularly care for Rodgers’ music, let alone see him as a seminal influence. Yet the two are so inextricably linked in the public mind that when Williams died, a number of maudlin ballads were written about the two icons meeting in heaven. I suspect that if Williams did inexplicably meet Rodgers in a heaven ruled by a very, very lenient God, he’d tell him how much he resented being compared to country’s other great blue yodeler.

Rodgers’ music was universal, yet rooted in a specific time and place. He was unmistakably a product of Mississippi, the American South, and the trains that played a huge role in his music and persona. The “Singing Brakeman” title was no PR spin; Rodgers really was a railroad brakeman, a dangerous and romantic job for the time that brought with it the worldliness endemic to constant travel. 

Rodgers performed other jobs as well, but “The Crooning Ticket Taker” doesn’t have quite the same ring. Rodgers’ influence is broad enough that he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (in the “Early Influence” category), the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and The Country Music Hall Of Fame. (He was the first inductee, praised as “the man who started it all.”)

Rodgers was one of those glorious only-in-America mutts, a white man who influenced generations of hillbilly singers playing and singing low-down dirty Mississippi blues with a vocal signature from the Swiss Alps. Over the course of this project, I’ve been delighted to discover just how African-American country’s roots are. It’s ironic that country has become synonymous in the minds of many with regressive racial attitudes, considering that two of its early saints (Rodgers and Bob Wills) were so proficient playing quintessentially black music: blues and jazz respectively.

Throughout his career, Rodgers was known by many titles. In addition to America’s Blue Yodeler and the Singing Brakeman, he was hailed as the Father Of Country Music, and, somewhat more dubiously, the Godfather of Soul, The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business, the Queen Of R&B Soul, the King Of Pop, the Pied Piper Of R&B, the Pompatus Of Love, and Jenny From The Block. Later, he was stripped of some of these titles when it came out that he wasn’t even alive when some of the aforementioned genres came into existence. I don’t care; whether it makes sense or not, Rodgers will always be Jenny From The Block to me. He used to have a little, then he had a lot (of both material possessions and tuberculosis) but no matter where he went, he knew where he came from. (Meridian, Mississippi, Meridian, Meridian Mississippi!)

Rodgers’ popularity exploded with the release of the 1928 single “Blue Yodel,” alternately known as “T For Texas” or “Blue Yodel #1.” The song launched Rodgers as a national superstar, sold half a million copies, and helped create the blueprint for country. “Blue Yodel” has much in common with the average gangsta-rap song. Rodgers brags about the viciousness of his pimp game, boasting, “I can get more women than a passenger train can haul.” (That’s his way of saying he’s got hos in different area codes.) It has gun talk (“I’m gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I am tall,” “I’m gonna buy me a shotgun with a great long shiny barrel”), trifling women, ad-libs that would make Young Jeezy jealous, and a formidable body count. One cold-blooded murderer isn’t enough for an incorrigible rounder like Rodgers: he’s going to kill the woman who did him wrong (“just to see her jump and fall”), as well as “the rounder that stole away my gal.” It’s dark stuff, but Rodgers’ winking delivery makes it not just palatable, but irresistible.

Like his subsequent signature hit “In The Jailhouse Now,” “Blue Yodel” occupies a shadowy underworld that Rodgers seems to know all too well. Rodgers helped map out the thematic terrain of country, a world of trains, hobos, prisons, no-good women, and cheating men. Rodgers covered edgy ground with a blessed lightness of touch and voluminous personality, or as Rodgers might pronounce it, “poy-suhn-ality.” Rodgers had a million ways to make a song his own, whether through his thick drawl, playful phrasing, ad-libs, frisky sexuality, yodels (which he self-deprecatingly referred to as curlicues he could do with his throat), or infectious good humor. He was a guy worth sharing a beer with, everybody’s pal. 

Given the runaway popularity of “Blue Yodel,” it’s no surprise that it prompted sequel after sequel. There were 13 Blue Yodels altogether. None is more fascinating or musically significant than “Standin’ On The Corner (Blue Yodel #9),” a sassy slab of New Orleans jazz thick with Bourbon Street atmosphere highlighted by the virtuoso trumpet squeals of an unbilled young musician named Louis Armstrong. Decades later, Johnny Cash, a longtime Rodgers fan and fellow train buff, invited Armstrong on his variety show to play the song with him.

In light of Rodgers’ death, it’s unsurprising that two of his most resonant numbers are about tuberculosis. “Whippin’ That Old TB” and “TB Blues” tackle this most pressing of concerns from antithetical angles. On “Whippin’ That Old TB,” Rodgers laughs defiantly in the face of death. Isn’t that the secret essence of not just pop music, but pop culture; sneering at the crushing inevitability of death by reveling in the ephemeral pleasures of life? For Rodgers, death was much more than just an abstract threat; it was a dispiriting fact of life. Shit; homeboy had the Grim Reaper on speed-dial. (Cue enraged reader: “Excuse me, Mr. So-Called Professional Writer. Your dire attempted “quip” does not make any sense, as rotary phones did not exist at the time of Mr. Rodgers’ 1933 death, let alone speed-dial. Epic fail!”) So for Rodgers to joke about the cause of his imminent demise took real testicular fortitude. 

“Whippin’ That Old TB” begins with one of Rodgers’ signature yodels followed by “Listen, all you rounders, you ought to be like me-hee! / Don’t worry bout consumption, even if they call it T-B-yee!” When Rodgers sings “TB, TB, some say tonic is fine / You take all your medicine you want, I’ll take good liquor for mine,” I want to go back in time and high-five him. Rodgers’ prescription for dealing with TB—happiness, sunshine, and liquor—is a lot more fun than the glowering dictates of grumpy old doctors, if a little more likely to lead to an early death. “Whippin’ That Old TB” embodies the essence of black comedy; laughing to keep from crying.

Where “Whippin’ That Old TB” is defiant, “TB Blues” is quietly despairing. Not even Rodgers’ fabled jauntiness can obscure the grim realities of living each day with the knowledge that it very well could be his last. It starts out sad, then grows bleaker with each successive line, until listeners are bound to feel like they’re in the grave with Jimmie. “I’ve been fighting like a lion, it looks like I’m going to lose / ’cause ain’t nobody ever whipped the TB blues,” Rodgers sings with heartbreaking resignation. Just when it seems the song can’t get any sadder, he tops himself with “Lord, that old graveyard is a lonesome place / they put you on your back, throw that mud down on your face.” 

Rodgers helped popularize the blues and twist it in the direction of country by singing it with a wink and a grin. He followed the old dictum to sing a sad song happy. If Rodgers didn’t seem too distraught abut the misery he sang about, then why should audiences worry? Yet it was impossible to put a happy face on a beloved entertainer dying of tuberculosis at 35. That’s perhaps the saddest of Rodgers’ contributions to country. Before Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Gram Parsons, Rodgers illustrated that nothing becomes a country legend quite like an early, dramatic death.

Rodgers left behind a rich musical legacy filled with what-ifs. What if he’d lived long enough to see the evolution of a genre he helped birth? What if he’d made more songs with Armstrong? How would Rodgers have handled the leap from singles to albums? Yet we haven’t seen the last of good old Jimmie. In the entries to follow, he’ll pop up again and again as an inspiration, a rich source of great material—shit, I could do an entire entry on Rodgers tribute albums—and a bridge between genres and musical worlds that aren’t anywhere near as dissimilar as we’ve been led to believe. So before we continue our journey through country music, let’s say goodbye via Jimmie’s achingly sad rendition of a song poignantly covered by one of his many acolytes, Johnny Cash: “I’m Free (From The Chain Gang Now).”

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
George Jones 
Billy Joe Shaver 
Buck Owens 
Emmylou Harris 
Lefty Frizzell