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Steve Forbert revives a ghost of Mississippi

By Rick Bell, December 2002

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Rodgers has an enduring catalog, Forbert says, noting performers like Crystal Gayle, Waylon Jennings, Lefty Frizzell and Leon Redbone have recorded Rodgers' songs. Merle Haggard's double-album tribute stands among the best interpretations, Forbert notes.

"I did some standard stuff," Forbert says. "Gambling, barroom themes. 'My Blue-Eyed Jane' was pretty famous. So was 'Any Old Time.'"

"There are only a few really obscure ones here. I didn't do them to be esoteric, but they rounded out the picture."

Much like Babe Ruth - who, incidentally, cracked a World Series home run the same day Rodgers' first song was released to the public in October 1927 - Rodgers helped define an era. During that extremely short career from 1927 to 1933, Rodgers was able to fight through his illness to record a remarkable 110 songs.

Born in 1897, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924. Yet unlike Hank Williams, whose physical and emotional pain were distinct themes in many of his songs, Rodgers' debilitating disease didn't play a central role in his music. '

Rather, Rodgers was the voice of his time, with a musical career that spanned the highest of the high times of the Roaring '20s and the most desperate despair of the Great Depression. And there always seemed to be that spark of hope, that little twinkle and wry smile in his songs.

"The guy was a hero," Forbert says, "a great American hero. He had a joy of life even though he was dying. People didn't buy his records because they had to; they bought his music based on emotion. He was a fighter, a buoyant character in American history."

Rodgers' title as the Father of Country Music didn't come lightly. Not only did he bring country - known as "hillbilly music" in his day - into the fabric of American entertainment, Rodgers' influence seeped into that of the singing cowboy led by Gene Autry.

Perhaps Rodgers' musical influences can be attributed to working the rails from an early age; possibly it has to do with the rich musical heritage already planted in the Mississippi delta. Nonetheless, Rodgers, like Presley some 30 years later, was the conduit for the many musical styles that coalesced in his songs.

"Jimmie combined hillbilly music with Tin Pan Alley and cowboy songs," Forbert says. "They called it country and western. He's the one who brought in western music and the blues."

It may have been somewhat experimental, but his songs were delivered with authority, Forbert adds.

"There was an attitude to his music," Forbert says. "It was a rock 'n' roll attitude. Jimmie Rodgers rocked. His music was basically rock 'n' roll. Like Elvis, it was a synthesis of different styles put into its own package.

"It has influenced everyone. Alan Jackson even does it today. Jimmie was a genius."

The recording was done in a relatively short time, Forbert says. He did the demos with producer Gary Tallent, who had assisted Forbert on two of his previous albums. Then they laid out his plans for the record. Most of the musicians have performed with Forbert at some time during his 25-year career.

"There were some wonderful players. We did it in just a few days," Forbert says. "I like to sing live and on the spot. We did overdub the fiddle and the toy piano."

"My audience is there because they want to be," says Forbert, who finally made his Grand Ole Opry debut in late November. "There will probably be five or six of them put in in strategic places. It's kinda nice to have those extra cards in your deck."

Meridian's radio station is playing cuts from the record, and Forbert plans to perform once again at the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival in May. While Forbert says he's honored to get the airplay - especially in his hometown - it's not why he made the record.

"I was influenced by him," Forbert says. "And it wasn't just me. Look at all the people who have played at his festival - Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb and Alan Jackson. He has influenced a lot of people - Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, the Rolling Stones and Elvis. Jerry Lee Lewis was a big fan of his."

"If I sell a whole lot of records, that's just fine. It's a lot of fun to play his music. I expect this album to grow, but it will be by word of mouth. I don't have a publicity machine like James Taylor does to sell 200,000 records.."

"I'm just real happy with it. I think Jimmie would have been too."

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