Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jimmie Rodgers (1979)

Nolan Porterfield’s 1979 Jimmie Rodgers is the definitive Jimmie Rodgers biography, a frank and honest look at a man who was determined to make the most of what he knew was going to be a very short life. Porterfield pulls no punches in the biography and spends as much time discussing Jimmie’s weaknesses as he does his strengths. As a result, the story that he tells is even more astounding than if he had written a puff piece portraying Jimmie as the perfect superstar of his day.

Jimmie Rodgers did not have a great singing voice. He was not an exceptionally talented guitar player and, in fact, was not known to be a very good musician. He found it difficult to keep time when recording with other musicians and was nowhere near the songwriter that he is “officially” credited with having been. That lack of songwriting ability when coupled with Jimmie’s difficulty in learning new material limited the number of recording sessions that could be scheduled during his short lifetime.

But Jimmie Rodgers was one of the great stylists of his day and he used his unique “blue yodel” and combined “hillbilly” and blues music in a way that continues to influence country music even today. He paved the way for the “singing cowboys” who became so popular in Hollywood movies after his death. Porterfield quotes music historian Henry Pleasants this way about the limitations of Jimmie’s voice: “Well, great voices do not great singers make. Great singers are made by what musically creative men and women do with the voices God gave them.” Exactly.

James Charles Rodgers, the youngest of three children, was born to a poor Mississippi couple on September 8, 1897. His father left a job with the railroad to farm the land on which the family lived in an attempt to provide a steadier living and so that he could spend more time with his growing family. But when Jimmie’s mother died in 1903, Aaron Rodgers returned to the railroad life and the Rodgers children were housed with other relatives.

Jimmie, who spent much of his young adult life working railroad jobs like his father, never seemed to see his railroad wages as anything more than the money he needed to tide him over until his singing career blossomed. Despite that, Jimmie Rodgers will always be remembered as a “railroad man” because he billed himself for a long time as “The Singing Brakeman,” an image that Hollywood used in the one short film recording that was made of Jimmy performing some of his songs.

Jimmie Rodgers was a man in a hurry. He knew that tuberculosis would kill him, especially if he did not spend weeks at a time in bed resting and recuperating from the effects of the disease that was killing so many of his countrymen. But Jimmie Rodgers was not one to spend his time bedridden and worrying about himself. He decided to make the most of the time he had, and only took to his bed when his doctors told him that he was near death if he refused to end his non-stop touring and recording schedule for a while, instances that became more and more frequent as Jimmie’s neglect of his health began to take its ultimate toll on him.

“That old T.B.” finally beat Jimmie Rodgers in May, 1933 when he died in a New York hotel room during what was to be his last recording session. Weak as he was, Rodgers managed to record thirteen masters from May 17-24, twelve of which were eventually released for sale. In a little less than six years (August 1927-May 1933), Jimmie managed to record only 110 songs, not a huge songbook by the standards of any major recording star, but one that is destined to live forever.

Jimmie Rodgers was a man who fought tremendous odds in order to live the life of his dreams. He was a musical pioneer who, although he could not finally beat the disease that killed him, held it off long enough to establish his place in music history. He survived the death of traveling vaudeville tent shows and the impact that the Great Depression had on the sale of his records. He was there to see the early days of radio and to suffer the effects of “talkies” on the kind of traveling live entertainment packages that made his living.

Nolan Porterfield has done a magnificent job of describing the ups and downs that Jimmie Rodgers suffered in his 35 years. In one sense, Jimmie did not have much to show for a music career that resulted in the sale of some seven million records and constant touring of the south and southwest parts of the country. At his death he had only about $4,000 to his name, the money that he had been advanced for his last recording session and the proceeds from the sale of an automobile. But, oh what a life he lived, and what a legend he has become!

Rated at: 5.0

This is one of the songs that Jimmie did for his Hollywood "short." It's known as "Blue Yodel No. 1" or "T for Texas."


  1. Great review, great blog... anyone with a Dwight Yoakam day absolutely and instantly goes to top of my list! Besides, my mom always said we're related to Sam Houston...

  2. His father left a job with the railroad to farm the land on which the family lived in an attempt to provide a steadier living

    Was railroading that bad a job back then? I can't imagine choosing farming because it was more secure!

  3. Working the railroad wasn't necessarily a "bad" job, factotum, but it required that a man be away from home for days or even weeks at a time as he worked his way across the state or country and work was not always available. Jimmie's father recognized that his wife's health was going down hill rapidly and decided that he needed to be at home more to support her. He was a failure as a farmer, however, and things were really no better for the family while he was farming.

  4. Hey, thanks for the nice comments, JK. I'm happy that the Dwight Yoakam Wednesday was something that you enjoyed.

  5. Oh good! I was hoping you'd do a full-blown review of this book. It's been on my wish list for a couple of years now, after I read "Honkytonk Man" by Clancy Carlile. I have a Jimmie R. CD with 25 songs (including one with the Carter Family) that I really enjoy. I'm heading over to Amazon to see if I can find this book...
    I'm listening to country music right now. Different era, though. Hal Ketchum.

  6. Hey Sam...I meant to ask you in my previous comment: Have you read the Carter Family biog "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?" ? It's really well-done, but irritating because there's no bibliography and if I remember correctly, not even an index. Still very much worth a look, though.

  7. I absolutely love that book, bybee...I've read it a couple of times now, in fact. I read it first in a library copy but decided I needed a permanent copy of my own. :-)