By Peter Cooper • THE TENNESSEAN • April 28, 2009
Music historian Barry Mazor pondered the question about "Father of Country Music" Jimmie Rodgers' impact on American culture.
"The thing is, it took 325 pages to answer your question," said Mazor, whose new book is Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. Mazor will speak about Rodgers and sign copies of the book at noon Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
"Some people recognize his influence and some don't," Mazor said. "That's not a sign of weakness in what Rodgers has meant to pop music, but rather a sign of strength. His music and his image are deep in the DNA of American music, and you don't have to be aware of that to get the influence."
Discovered in 1927 at a Bristol, Va., cattle-call-style recording session, Rodgers was a major music star by 1929. He died in 1933, but his swagger, his infatuation with railroad songs and images and his bluesy yodel fascinate artists and audiences to this day.
"He knew he had tuberculosis, and he knew what that meant. He knew it would kill him," Mazor said. "He was dying, even before his first recording was made."
Rodgers' illness kept him from international travel, but he played hundreds of shows=2 0throughout America. As he extended his fame and wealth, he carved out an often-emulated model.
"His Mississippi accent is on the records, and he never got rid of it," Mazor said. "Here's a guy who sold something close to a million records with his first hit, but for many people in the South he came to represent them. His records were selling in Australia and Japan, and what he was doing was bringing the wider world to the rural and small-town people of the South, where he came from. That's so closely tied to how people related to him, and it also relates to who Elvis Presley became or who Dolly Parton is."
Three decades ago, Nolan Porterfield published Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler, and that book stands as definitive biography.
Rather than merely update Porterfield's work, Mazor focused on Rodgers' impact and import. He was able to unearth some previously unreported information, though, by consulting family scrapbooks, Rodgers' musician's diary and other sources.
"One thing I wanted to know was whether the Father of Country Music ever played Nashville, the city that became the home of country music," Mazor said. "It turns out that in the summer of 1932, he played in Nashville on one of the very last of the working steam-powered showboats. It was a boat that held 700 people, called the Hollywood, and it was on the Cumberland all summer long. They booked him, he listed the date in his diary, and I found in the Nashville Banner a tiny, one-inch ad. He played on the boat at midnight. And the tiny ad was next to a one-third-page article announcing that WSM had just conducted its first test of its new, 50,000-watt transmitter."