The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: a Tribute

Sometimes tribute albums are just that, an act of homage meant to remind us of how good a set of songs are. So The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute stands as a 14-song reminder that Rodgers was, as Bob Dylan puts it in the liner notes to the first release on his new boutique label, ”one of the guiding lights of the 20th century.”

Widely considered the father of country music, Rodgers influenced everyone from Hank Williams and Elvis Presley to the stars assembled here with his amalgam of cowboy music, hillbilly balladry, and blues. How that influence plays out, however, is a surprise. Although the arrangements tend to be on the traditional side, the vocals are seldom beholden to Rodgers’ originals. Bono croons ”Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes” like Vic Damone gone Nashville, while Aaron Neville sounds soulful in ”Why Should I Be Lonely” despite the heavy coating of fiddles and pedal steel. Even the country contingent takes chances, with Dwight Yoakam going raw-voiced and rock-edged on ”T for Texas,” as Alison Krauss brings a saucy sweetness to ”Any Old Time.”

Dylan reminds us that Rodgers made everything he sang ”unmistakably his own,” a trick not everyone paying tribute can manage. Iris DeMent’s unvarnished voice may lend an air of authenticity to ”Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” but it brings no new light to the song. Others simply have trouble singing, as Jerry Garcia (in a recording made just two weeks before his death) flubs the yodels in ”Blue Yodel #9,” and Dylan is phlegmy and overmodulated on ”My Blue Eyed Jane.”

Fortunately, Rodgers’ songs hold up against these and other indignities. But after hearing how effortlessly Steve Earle and the V-Roys update Rodgers’ rascally charm with ”In the Jailhouse Now,” or how completely the brassy jive of Van Morrison’s ”Mule Skinner Blues” rethinks the tune, it’s hard not to wish this tribute were as great as Rodgers himself. B

The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: a Tribute
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