T for Tennesee (A blue yodel for NM)

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.

13 thoughts on “T for Tennesee (A blue yodel for NM)

  1. I do have to beg to differ on Patsy not being more authentically country than Faith. Patsy hated the strings, the Jordanaires backing her…she hated most of the songs that made her famous. The difference in Patsy was life experience and attitude. That, to me, is what made her such a rich vocalist. Jimmie was just doing his thing. He wasn’t purposely straddling. Jimmie had no drive or ambition. Ralph Peer did the straddling.

  2. Well, a man dying of TB doesn’t take himself all the way to NYC to make some last recordings unless he’s got some drive. Plus I’ve always thought of him as one of the last vaudevilleians, and that straddles — maybe not the boundary between here and there, but at least the boundaries among a whole lot of heres. As far as people thinking that a song isn’t really country if "they" went and got this person to play and that one to write and all, I agree that there is this thought, but I think it’s crazy. If you were lucky enough to get a Harlan Howard song and could get the A-Team on your record, how was it not country? That’s rockism, that is.

  3. I see you cribbed that Temperance card from the Waite Tarot deck. I’ve used a Waite deck for more than 30 years. There’s just something about the feel that fits. Which brings me around to your point on artistic source vs. the often muddy and muddled mundanities that can stifle creativity. I don’t necessarily see creation as a balance; though I must say it flourishes better for the individual if that person achieves some sort of personal parity. I worked in the theatre for most of my professional life. When casting a show – I would often ask an actor whether the work made them crazy or kept them sane. Though the ones who answered in the former were often capable of flashes of brilliance – it was the sane ones I preferred to cast. They exorcised their demons on stage – not created them. So temperance and art, though related often do not reside together in the same skin. Hell of a dichotomy – wouldn’t you say?

  4. It is Waite. I love that deck, too. And almost modern deck owes a debt to it in some way. If I were making a deck, I wouldn’t replace Temperance with Art, but I definitely see how real creativity can come out of the precarious balance.

  5. It doesn’t so much scrape my teeth as make me say "Wait! What? What does that mean, again?" Kind of like ’emphiteusis’ or ‘hypothecation’. But that’s only because we have all been brainwashed into thinking that the rock way is the only right way. The way they put up signs along Music Row that say "[Insert writer’s name], you rock!"and I always want to stop and correct them with magic marker to say "you twang!" Magni has a passing reference to pop music and sneering on her blog that seems to me to be related to this, and I want to say something profound about it all, but it will have to wait until I can think it all into one mass.

  6. There’s a lot of pressure on you now, NM, now that you’ve been nominated for a Koufax for best commenter. I tease. Still, it tickles me.

  7. Are you kidding me? <Pause for checking nominations> You’re not kidding me. Magni, (I think that was Magni) you’re making me blush. I mean, Chris Clarke deserves that award. Belledame deserves that award, maybe. I just make jokes.

  8. I think it was Magni and I do think you deserve it. Plus, if you win, I can refer to you as "That award winning commenter, nm," which would be great fun for me.

  9. Oh, and about Ms. Cline (and Ms. Hill): I’m not sure whether life experience alone makes someone a country singer or not. I don’t think that country artists have to come from some specific set of places or backgrounds or have a specific set of opinions or outlooks on life. That is Ralph Peer at work. But the songs themselves do have to contain certain elements (lyrics that use concrete details to suggest universal emotions, music that at least contains references to other music that has been categorized as country, other stuff) that characterize country music. Almost all of Cline’s songs did this, and so (for better or worse) do many of Hill’s.

  10. Yeah, you could put a banner or something at the top of your blog, that says "often visited by Koufax Award nominee nm." Maybe NiT and some other blogs could do that, too. Or wait, I know, if I post a comment you can make a special sign on the post, like the trackback sign, that says "commented on by Koufax Award Nominee nm." Of course, I guess you’d have to do that for Belledame, too, so it wouldn’t be all that.

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