PICKIN’ AND GRINNIN’ MUSIC (April 18/97)

The signal from the Boston station crackled and faded in and out, but the nasal sound was unmistakable.

Twanging away on a steel guitar, his voice quavering occasionally on the higher notes, Jimmie Rodgers rendered the jailhouse song that made him famous.

Recorded in 1927, “I’m in the Jailhouse Now” became Rodgers’ signature song and brought him stardom in Canada and America. One of country music’s first recording stars, the Singing Brakeman pioneered a style of music that nowadays makes millionaires of country and western singers. Jimmie recorded the jailhouse song at his third recording session for RCA Victor and sang it throughout his career. Since Jimmie’s heyday the song has been recorded by several generations of country singers and was a bit for several stars.

The Boston station was paying tribute to Jimmie Rodgers the Saturday night I accidentally tuned in. I heard several songs by my all-time favourite singer, a rambling discussion on his life and career and a few songs by other country and western music pioneers, such as the Carter family.

Jimmie Rodgers’ career was short – he died of TB at the age of 35 – but he recorded many enduring songs. While be was hailed as the father of country music, Rodgers actually recorded a wide range of material outside this genre, including the famous blue yodels and numerous pop songs. Six years after Rodgers released “The One Rose That’s Left in My Heart” for example, Bing Crosby recorded it and had a hit.

When Jimmie Rodgers sang it sounded like he truly was picking and grinning, an American phrase country singers around here freely apply to their musical get-togethers. While he has been dead for over 60 years, Jimmie Rodgers’ voice can still be heard over the airwaves; his recordings still sell and countless fans cherish his music.

Jimmie Rodgers twanged and yodeled his way into the hearts of several generations of country music fans. But while he undoubtedly was a pioneer in the country music field and may rightfully be the father of country music, the type of songs he sang were popular well before his heyday.

Starting in 1927 the Carter Family recorded many songs that had been making the folk circuit for generations. Their 1929 recording of “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” became a country classic. In 1923 an RCA Victor recording of Vernon Dalhart singing “The Prisoner’s Song” and “The Wreck of the Old ’97” sold six million copies. Dalhart’s nasal voice may have influenced the singing style of Jimmie Rodgers.

A song written in 1897 – “The Letter Edged in Black” – remained a country favourite in the 1920s and ’30s and was revived successfully in the ’40s by Roy Acuff. “Home on the Range”, a folk-country-western song written in 1873, was a hit before entertainers such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family members were born and it is still sung today.

Proof that pickin’ and grinnin’ music was definitely popular in our great grandpappy’s day can be seen in the reprints of the old T. Eaton Co. catalogues being sold in bookstores today. The 1901 edition offered numerous selections of sheet music that, by their titles, were clearly in the country and western music genre.

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