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It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Jimmie Rodgers, on the other hand, shines his light the length and breadth of country music. A native of Meridian, Mississippi, who failed at job after job while fecklessly pursuing a singing career (and contracting tuberculosis), Rodgers was touched by genius. He was a primitive guitarist with, charitably put, an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm; it is entirely to Ralph Peer’s credit that he heard the gleam in Rodgers’s voice, a sunniness that could make listeners feel that Jimmie was their best friend.
Rodgers turned up in Bristol with an undistinguished string band. After Peer auditioned them, he called Jimmie back alone. “He was an individualist, he had his own style,” said Peer; in Peer’s turn-of-the-century language, Rodgers “was singing nigger blues, they were doing old-time fiddle music.” Another reason he gave Rodgers his own session, Peer said, was pity: “He was obviously dying. I gave him fifty dollars a selection [twenty-five was closer to the norm] because he needed it.”
Jimmie needed just the break, not the sympathy. His Bristol sides made a small splash; three months later he recorded his famous “Blue Yodel No. 1.” By mid-1928 he was a star throughout the South. He sold twelve million records while he lived and at one time earned a hundred thousand dollars a year—more than Babe Ruth—charming audiences with his jaunty bonhomie and his famous trademark: the yodel, which he popularized. It must have been wonderful to see Jimmie Rodgers, straw-hatted or in the cowboy costumes he donned late in his career, stick his left foot on a stool, toss back his head, and sing:
A word on Jimmie’s influences. Time and again black musicians had an impact on early country music. “And there’s a very good reason for it,” said Frank Walker, after Peer perhaps the greatest hillbilly-era producer. “On the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, you had your colored section, and then you had your white—Fm sorry to use the word, you had what they used to call ‘white trash.’ They were right close to each other. They passed each other every day, and a little of the spiritualistic type of singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did.” Rodgers, who spoke in a hip, black-inflected argot, preferred the blues to all of the other songs he did, according to Peer. Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, learned at the feet of a wandering black guitarist named Arnold Shultz. As a young man in West Texas, Bob Wills, progenitor of Western Swing, rode his horse fifty miles to see Bessie Smith, “Queen of the Blues,” sing. Post-World War II country music’s towering figure Hank Williams always said his only teacher was the black street singer Rufus Payne, known as “Tee-Tot.” The country-music innovators who were not directly influenced by black musicians are few indeed.
By 1933, the year Jimmie Rodgers died, the Depression was forcing the record business into a survival struggle. Only 6 million records were sold in the United States in 1932. compared with 104 million in 1927, when the industry had fought back from its early-twenties slump.
Yet the Depression didn’t kill country music; it actually pushed it to new heights of popularity and professionalism. Unable to afford records, rural listeners relied on the radios they’d bought in flusher times. Radio became the essential medium of Depression-era hillbilly music, and powerful stations like Nashville’s WSM. Chicago’s WLS, and Fort Worth’s WBAP began creating country-music fans all across the nation. In 1936 WSM’s “Grand Ole Opry” drew 325,000 letters from fans. Across the Mexican border the outlaw “X stations” used wattages two and three times the legal U.S. limit to blast Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family all the way to Canada.
In the twenties hillbilly recording artists were essentially amateurs who earned their real livings as railroaders, millworkers, and miners. Making records was a lark. “When you’d picked out the three or four things in their repertoire,” said Frank Walker, “you were through with that man as an artist. That was it, you forgot about them and said good-bye, and they went back home; they had made a phonograph record, and that was the next thing to being President of the United States in their mind.” But the Depression made part-time music making an untenable luxury, and casual pickers and fiddlers were replaced by a more professional, more ambitious lot.