Burying the Brakeman

Or perhaps Dylan's simply too much in awe of Rodgers to make sense of him; for someone whose greatest music was carved from tablets handed down by the likes of Guthrie, Paul Clayton, Mance Lipscomb, Charley Patton, Sleepy John Estes and the myriad other folk heroes he imitated and ripped off, Dylan has no sense of perspective where Rodgers is concerned. "If we look back far enough," Dylan writes in the CD's liner notes, "Jimmie may well be the 'man who started it all,' for we have no antecedent to compare him to. His refined style, an amalgamation of sources unknown, is too cryptic to pin down."

But Rodgers made no secret of where he had been or where he was going: He was the country boy refined, the son of a Mississippi railroad man who combined the raucous blues he heard around the tracks with the big-city jazz he heard coming from the radio; he even dressed it like he played it, wearing pretty-boy suits and polka-dot ties and straw hats as he strummed cowboy songs for the city slicker record men who made him a star. He wasn't the first country singer to yodel, and he might not even have been the best (there are those who'd argue that Emmett Miller was the greatest, the Milton Brown to Jimmie Rodgers's Bob Wills); Rodgers was simply the man who made blues yodeling famous, who became a legend and made a living by creating "curlicues" with his throat. Rodgers is indeed one of the most important figures in 20th-century music -- but because he was all things at once, bluesman and jazzer (he even recorded with Louis Armstrong) and hillbilly and Tin Pan Alley acolyte and folksinger. He fit into tradition because he blew it apart, because he took sources known and then turned them into a mysterious stew of his own creation.

Dylan's homage would prefer to paint him strictly as a country musician: Steve Earle brings his personal baggage to "In the Jailhouse Now," but it's not enough; Allman Brother Dickey Betts croaks "Waiting for a Train" like a man who'll never catch it; and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman render "Blue Yodel No. 9" in pastel shades. Alison Krauss and Union Station turn "Any Old Time" into their own song ... too bad it sounds like all their others. Dwight Yoakam doesn't damage "T for Texas," but perhaps that's merely because it's an indestructible song -- and because Yoakam knows his place and doesn't turn it into a big band swing song. And where the perennially underrated John Mellencamp drenches "Gambling Bar Room Blues" in lo-fi dread, it still sounds like low-rent Tom Waits on a country kick.

Only Willie Nelson ("Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia") and Iris DeMent ("Hobo Bill's Last Ride") seem to understand Rodgers's music, because they are direct descendants on the timeline. Nelson especially is Rodgers's kin, a man who's just as much an amalgam as the Singing Brakeman: Nelson plays guitar like a jazzman and sings like a field hand; he writes like he's on the Tin Pan payroll and puts it all together like a pro who's more comfortable with amateur status. "Peach Pickin'" isn't a great song in the first place, more like a sketch than a full-color painting ("When it's roundup time in Texas, the cowboys are making whoopee"), and Nelson doesn't do much more with it than turn it into a Willie Nelson song. But that's more than enough. Hell, on an album like this, it's everything.

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