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Steve Forbert revives a ghost of Mississippi

By Rick Bell, December 2002

There are some 110 recorded songs in country legend Jimmie Rodgers' historic catalog.

Folk singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, however, didn't spend hours of painstaking, meticulous research to find exactly the right ones for his tribute album to the famed Singing Brakeman.

Though a tribute to Rodgers has been on Forbert's list of things to do for several years, the album does not coincide with any anniversary, nor is it packaged to generate maximum airplay by including a studio full of superstars who probably know more about Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page than the man commonly referred to as the Father of Country Music.

Rather, Forbert, whose remarkable debut record some 25 years ago pinned the weight of being the "next Bob Dylan" on his slender shoulders, captures the Singing Brakeman's wide-smiled, sparkly eyed spirit in an unpretentious, thoughtful tip of the cap from one Mississippian to another.

The 12-song album, "Any Old Time (Songs of Jimmie Rodgers)" (Koch), runs from playful to serious, popular to obscure - much like Rodgers' meteoric career, which kicked off with a famed recording session in Bristol, Tenn., in 1927 and ended just 6 years later when Rodgers finally succumbed to tuberculosis the day after his final recording session in May 1933.

The album is also something of a return to Forbert's roots. He left Mississippi for New York at age 21, ultimately finding an audience for his unlikely sound amid the late '70s din of new wave and disco.

Times were good and not so good, career-wise, anyway. Outfitted in a denim jacket and toting an acoustic guitar with a harp rack slung around his neck, he certainly gave the appearance of the next Bob Dylan. And his music backed that up.

Forbert scored commercial success and garnered tremendous critical acclaim early on with his debut release, "Alive on Arrival" in 1978 and its followup a year later, "Jackrabbit Slim." That album included Forbert's hit tune "Romeo's Song."

Yet, the fickle nature of the music business - and the artist as well - left Forbert recording good, if not obscure tunes on a variety of small labels. "Any Old Time" is really no different: good tunes on a small label.

But these aren't all obscure songs. And Forbert has a bond with Rodgers few others can boast.

"We're both from Meridian," says Forbert while on the road near Washington, D.C., where he was to perform a solo show that evening. "This is something I've wanted to do for quite a while. I've recorded a few of his songs over the years, but I wanted to be in the frame of mind to focus and choose the right songs."

Forbert, whose folksy style and lyrical, gravelly lilt seems perfectly suited to record Rogers' music, said he didn't have to spend hours in the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum or the library of Meridian, a town of about 40,000 people lodged near the Mississippi-Alabama border.

Rodgers' music is woven into the fabric of a town that, much like the state itself, has blessed the rest of the world with some incredibly talented people.

Mississippi indeed gave us Marty Stuart, Muddy Waters and, of course, Elvis Presley. Yet, Meridian itself has spawned quite an impressive list of performers beyond Forbert and Rodgers to include country singer Moe Bandy, jazz men Percy and Jimmy Heath, The Temptations' Jimmy and David Ruffin and Peavy Electronics' founder Hartley Peavy. Even one of Charlie's Angels, Cheryl Ladd, hails from Meridian.

Forbert grew up in this fertile entertainment environment, playing Rodgers' music and even picking from time to time with his descendants. The timing to make the record finally fell into place, he says.

"I listened to his whole catalog," Forbert recalled. "Rounder has an eight-CD chronology that includes all of his recordings. I picked the songs that stood the test of time, but also the songs I could relate to. They had to be songs I could sing night after night."

Forbert also chose songs that varied in subject matter and style. Only one of the famed "Blue Yodels" made the cut, and he kept train songs to a minimum.

"They couldn't be all love or train songs," Forbert says. "I had plenty to pick from. I'd done 'In the Jailhouse Now' before. But I didn't do 'Muleskin-ner's Blues' or 'T for Texas' (which also is known as "Blue Yodel No. 1"). I left off most of the songs that have been covered a lot."

When certain songs have been covered by other artists dozens of times, there's little room for new interpretation. Yet Forbert manages to add a wistful read of the classic "Miss the Mississippi," which was not written by Rodgers but by Bill Halley.

"Not that Bill Haley," says Forbert, noting it was the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Bill Halley, not the one who rocked around the clock with his Comets in the early 1950s. "He also wrote 'Roll Along, Kentucky Moon.' He wrote 'Miss the Mississippi' for Jimmie. It's a great song, one that I felt I needed to have on the album."

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