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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor

Jimmie Rodgers in his guise as "The Singing Brakeman"

Book Review
Meeting Jimmie Rodgers
 by Barry Mazor
p. 2009
Oxford University Press

  Meeting Jimmie Rodgers was a totally random pick up, found by a friend at the always-amazing dtla used book hot spot The Last Bookstore.  Can't say enough about The Last Bookstore, from the location to the selection!  And the crazy second story! So many books, much reading.

  Jimmie Rodgers is constantly mentioned in almost an book you read about twentieth century popular music.  He's a key nexus between older genres of popular music like Blues and Hill-Billy and newer genres like Country and Rock and Roll.  He was also a prototype for the single singer songwriter accompanying himself on guitar, and an obvious inspiration for Folk trends of the later 20th century.

  While Rodgers hasn't exactly been forgotten, the fact that all of his recordings were done on now scarce 78s gives his story a bit of a "lost and found" vibe similar to what accompanies the re-discovery of African American bluesman.  However, that is a misleading comparison, because Rodgers recorded more than 111 "sides" via 78 and sold hundred of thousands if not millions of copies of those records, before succumbing in proto-rock star fashion to Tuberculosis during the Great Depression.

 Meeting Jimmie Rodgers devotes itself equally to chronicling Rodgers true life biography and then chronicling his long afterlife as an inspiration for broader popular music trends of the 20th century.  The most interesting of these descriptions is Rodgers relationship to the country-music establishment in Nashville Tennessee.  Rodgers recorded when what we call country music was called "Hilly-Billy" and when what we call "Western" (as in "Country and Western") was a largely separate genre called Western Swing.  Nashville did not emerge as "Music City" in a formal sense until the 1950s, roughly the same time Rodgers was going through the first of several "revivals."  One problem: Rodgers maybe played one show in Nashville, and was from Meridien Mississippi.

 Obviously it is a battle that Nashville was destined to win, but it's interesting to see the way Rodgers was initially held at arms length as an outsider before being broad into the warm embrace.   Mazor's chapter on the Rock influence is weaker- perhaps it's simply more obvious since Elvis Presley was from Tupelo Mississippi and had parents who were Rodgers fans.  Rodgers influence on rock music is less direct because the star of his early 50s revival had waned by the time of the British Invasion.

 Mazor deserves high praise for turning out an Oxford University Press title on such an interesting, but traditionally "non academic" subject.  There need to be more titles that bridge the gap between "popular" biographical accounting of pop music stars and academic treatises that focus on narrower subjects.  This is one of those books.  For other books on popular music that reach this level of sophistication without being obtuse, check out The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Duke University Press) by Diane Pecknold and Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard University Press) by David Suisman.


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