Burying the Brakeman

They tried this nine years ago, and then, somehow, it worked. In 1988, Columbia Records rounded up a cast of familiar and vaguely bankable voices -- among them Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, U2, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp -- and asked them to breathe life into the words of Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie. The superstars were given the opportunity to rescue those legends from the hallowed halls of the Library of Congress, told to take them out to play and stretch their legs a bit. The result, Folkways: A Vision Shared, was for a good cause -- to raise money for the Smithsonian to purchase and protect Mo Asch's label and legacy, the Folkways catalog -- and produced an even better record, one in which today's performers captured yesterday's lightning in a bottle. The musicians lined up for Folkways, including Arlo Guthrie and Sweet Honey in the Rock and even Brian Wilson and Little Richard, respected the originals and often transcended them, and to listen to the record now is to understand the meaning of timelessness -- everything sounds as though it was written now. A Vision Shared was the first, and remains the last, tribute album to warrant such a title.

Not in two decades had Bob Dylan sounded so forceful as when he ripped into Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," recalling the story of the Okie outlaw who took his booty in the name of the people. Dylan sounded reborn, like a child taking his first steps -- appropriate, perhaps, since Guthrie had been his idol, his inspiration, his mentor and his friend. Dylan literally watched as the man died, only to years later bring him back to life.

With The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute, Dylan once again tries his hand at a little resurrection magic, this time with a song-writing giant he knew only through his music and his myth. Guthrie was an easy choice, a batting-practice pitch easily hit over the wall; Rodgers -- the man saddled with the unfortunate title of "The Father of Country Music," though he was no more than perhaps its uncle -- died in 1933 in a New York motel room during a break from recording sessions, and Dylan and the rest of the acolytes would struggle to know him from afar. Perhaps that's why the Rodgers record -- the first release on Egyptian Records, Dylan's own imprint on Columbia -- is so little fun, why it smacks of worship and doesn't ring with Folkways celebration. It's like hearing a bunch of people too scared to make history their own, millionaires who have nothing in common with a tuberculosis-suffering brakeman who wrote of hoboes and field hands because he was them. Just because someone grew up listening to a particular artist's music doesn't mean he understood it, or that he felt it.

The assortment of musicians rounded up for The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers is simply all wrong: Where A Vision Shared had the twang of campfire familiarity about it, where it resonated with bottleneck heartbreak, this feels slick and dandified and misguided -- like something made to get played on radio, not to honor a man misunderstood by history. Van Morrison mumbles his way through "Mule Skinner Blues," Aaron Neville sings the country standard "Why Should I Be Lonely" as though he's still trying out for the Vienna Boys Choir and Mary Chapin Carpenter turns "Somewhere Down Below the Mason-Dixon Line" into a public-radio anthem, a record to be given away during a pledge drive.

Bono's "Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes" reeks with the stench of self-seriousness; he moans and drones, choking down the words with a string-section chaser. Bono is too far gone now, too much a joke and too little a great singer for Rodgers's material; he has finally delivered on his threat to become post-metal's Robert Plant, turning a desperate man's wisdom -- "Sunshine will turn into sorrow as I dream of the love we once knew" -- into an arena-rocker's cliche. It's a far cry from the man who turned Guthrie's "Jesus Christ" into a runaway thriller a decade ago.

Dylan croaks "My Blue-Eyed Jane" as though he just learned the words yesterday and has yet to teach the band the music; his voice sounds shot, full of phlegm and pain, and the band doesn't know whether to play with or against him. This isn't Nashville Skyline Dylan, but the lost kid who tried to record with Johnny Cash in the 1960s only to find he didn't know his way around history when history was standing at the microphone next to him. Dylan at his best has always understood that the past existed to be tinkered with in the present; he stole wholesale from traditional hymns because he knew moribund words could be made vital for today. But here he seems too caught up in yesterday -- Rodgers's and, sadly, his own. Rodgers's simple, heartbreaking song about love never meant to be -- "When the sun goes down / And the shadows are creeping over town / And I come back again / My blue-eyed Jane" -- is swallowed up in a voice worn away by dust and attrition. On the eve of Rodgers's 100th birthday, this is like kicking a little graveyard dirt in his eye.

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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky