Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jimmie Rodgers

  • The Essential Jimmie Rodgers [RCA, 1997] A
  • RCA Country Legends [RCA/BMG Heritage, 2002] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Essential Jimmie Rodgers [RCA, 1997]
Rodgers isn't the most accessible of totems--read Nolan Porterfield on his "raw energy" and "driving" guitar and you'll think somebody made a mistake at the pressing plant. But he didn't invent country music being a purist. He was the first to put into practice the retrospectively obvious truth that Southerners wanted more from their music than hymns, reels, and high-mountain laments--blues voicings and pop tunes and even a little jazz, though most of these classics are strictly solo. Also, he yodeled, a sound that encompasses the restless bad-boy escapism of "The Brakeman's Blues" and "Pistol Packin' Papa," which fortunately for rock and rollers predominates, and the dreamy good-boy nostalgia of "Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea" and "My Old Pal," without which he wouldn't have meant spit in T-for-Texas or T-for-Tennessee. Also encompassing both is "Waiting for a Train," as signal a Depression song as "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." It was recorded in 1928. A

RCA Country Legends [RCA/BMG Heritage, 2002]
Having seen the world like a true railroad man, Rodgers moved beyond hillbilly showbiz (Dave Macon, Frank Hutchison) without stooping to respectability (Bradley Kincaid, Vernon Dalhart). Thus he spawned tens of thousands of singers who sounded like themselves as they sang at the whole round world, and their collective achievement dulled our ear for his originality. With the country space he opened up so crowded, what can it mean to say that he outsang all but a few of his progeny? Maybe, as Bob Dylan says, "his refined style . . . is too cryptic to pin down." But inventors have a way of conveying that they're inventing something. So start with his diffident sense of hip, sincere and sly at the same time, anticipating two crucial structures of feeling: the laid-back and the cool. Add that he was also exuberant in there somewhere. Don't forget that yodel. Mention that he could swing la Merle or Lefty when he wanted. And then admit that unvarnished Rodgers still requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That's what's so nice about the gloss here--Rodgers in jazz, pop, jug-band, Hawaiian, and just plain backed settings, from Louis Armstrong to local pros, all of whom make this his most listenable collection. Some of the songs are classics, some obscurities. Now try to tell one from the other without a scorecard. A