NM asked all kinds of questions about Jimmie Rodgers in the context of the thing I’m doing at Plimco’s urging, which, even though I have a rough, rough draft done, I still cannot bring myself to state specifically for fear that I will jinx myself.
But I thought I’d answer her questions in my own half-assed way, anyway.
To start, let’s talk about the fourteenth card of the Major Arcana, Temperance. In some decks, it’s called Art. At first, I think trying to understand the connection between art and temperence can be difficult, when we recall how many artists seem to make second careers out of excess.
But if you think of temperence as finding a balance between two things–one foot on dry land, one in the water, a winged creature on earth, the sun at the horizon, the water mid-way between cups–finding that precarious moment where everything hangs in the balance, it’s easier to see how art fits in. What is the artist if not the conduit between the Source and the mundane?
Here’s an interesting thing to me about country music, especially. The easier it is to point out who all is involved with the creation of a song, the likelier folks are to complain about that song being not “real” country. If you can say, “Well, he wrote it because we needed something radio would play and they played on it and she sang it and he produced it and they’re promoting it,” inevitably, someone’s going to complain that that’s not “real” country.
The more facts you have about a song, the less real it seems. Maybe we should call this Aunt B.’s Country Music Paradox.
And the opposite seems true as well: the less facts you have about a song, the more real it seems.
Same is true of artists.
Think of Patsy Cline.
If you didn’t know she was country, what on her hit songs would give it away?
Not much, I would say. If “real” country music has a certain sound, we ought to decry Cline as the fakest faker that ever did fake. She’s no more authentic country than Faith Hill.
But Cline does something Hill does not. Cline straddles that line between here and There. No matter how much you write about her or read about her or listen to her, I don’t think you could ever say you got her as an artist definitively.
Which brings us, finally, to Jimmie Rodgers.
How do you write about Rodgers without constantly referencing all the lines he’s straddling. Where to start? On the one hand, he’s considered the Father of Country Music; on the other hand, he’s singing old blues songs. On the one hand, he’s singing this music that’s marketed to rural white folks; on the other hand, he has a huge influence on the black community that had such a huge influence on him. On the one hand, his songs all have a kind of charming swagger to them; on the other hand, he himself was pretty sickly. On the one hand, he’s called the Singing Brakeman; on the other hand, he’s not above dressing like a singing cowboy.
And so on.
Gillian Welch, I think, is trying to get at that same thing about Elvis in “Elvis Presley Blues” that sometimes an artist can bring together things we think of as disparate and thrive in the charge bringing them together gives him or her.
Though, maybe thrive is the wrong word, considering how many of them die young.
My point is that right there at the birth of recorded country music, you have this guy already straddling “authentic” and “commercial,” “white music” and “black music,” all this stuff that we still fight about now, Rodgers was the guy that brought those live wires together to see what kinds of sparks he could get.
When you look at it that way, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to call him the Father of Country Music.