When Ralph Peer set up the Victor Co.'s recording equipment in a millinery warehouse in Bristol, Va., in 1927, musicians from all over Southern Appalachia flocked to his makeshift studio. Recorded hillbilly music was only four years old, and most of the 23 acts Peer selected played traditional rural material -- hymns, ballads and string band music. The Carter Family and Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, who both recorded for Peer in Bristol, represented the best of this old-fashioned approach.
Quite different, however, was another singer who auditioned for Peer. Jimmie Rodgers was no provincial who had never been off the farm; as a railroad brakeman and itinerant guitarist, he had bounced all over the South, absorbing blues, jazz, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley as well as traditional rural music. In other words, he was one of the new mobile Southerners who soaked up many regional styles but belonged to none of them. He was country music's first individualist, the first to impose his own voice on the tradition rather than the other way around.
What a distinctive, thrilling voice it was -- bursting with a contagious optimism that life was full of exciting possibilities just waiting to be grabbed. That voice sounds just as exceptional today, now that Rodgers's recordings are finally being issued for the first time on compact disc. "The First Sessions, 1927-1928" and "The Early Years, 1928-1929" are the first two volumes in a projected eight-volume series from Rounder that will make available on CD everything Rodgers recorded before his death (of tuberculosis) in 1933. This series will rival "The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson" not only for historical significance but also for the sheer pleasure at hearing a voice that can cut across half a century with its power intact.
Like William Faulkner, Rodgers was born in Mississippi in 1897. Both were shaped by the state's peculiar culture, and both made the changes wracking that culture a principal subject of their art. Rodgers, though, is no more a representative of Mississippi folk culture than Faulkner is; both are individual geniuses who transcended their environment to forge universal works of art.
The two songs Rodgers recorded for Peer are included on "The First Sessions" (and on "The Bristol Sessions," a double album of all 23 acts recorded by Peer that summer; released by the Country Music Foundation in 1987, it gives an excellent sense of the context Rodgers emerged from). A month after his August session in Bristol, Rodgers moved in with his sister-in-law at 1151 Third St. NE in Washington. He quickly hired guitarists Julian Nindle and Ellsworth Cozzens as his sidemen. (Cozzens was the uncle of the Seldom Scene's great dobroist, Mike Auldridge, and Auldridge's new album, "Treasures Untold," on Sugar Hill, contains three Rodgers songs in a tribute to Cozzens.)
From D.C., Rodgers commuted to Camden, N.J., where he refined his style and recorded "Blue Yodel," better known as "T for Texas." Like all great breakthroughs in American music, it combined African American and European American elements into an inspired new hybrid. Based on a 12-bar blues learned from a black railroad worker, the song is transformed by Rodgers's warbled yodeling, plaintive twang and falsetto accents -- but most of all by an infectious confidence and optimism unknown to the blues. Recorded in 1927 and released in '28, "Blue Yodel" sold a million copies and made Rodgers country music's first superstar.
"The First Sessions" also includes Cozzens compositions such as "Treasures Untold" and "Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea," as well as such Rodgers classics as "In the Jailhouse Now" and "The Brakeman's Blues." "The Early Years" displays the great breadth of Rodgers's interests -- included are blues, Dixieland, ballads, novelty numbers, dance tunes and pure pop. Among the best recordings he ever made are four done with an Atlanta jazz band on the spur of the moment. Also included in this second volume are three of his best-loved songs: "My Little Lady," "Daddy and Home" and "Waiting for a Train."
Rodgers's complete works are worth owning, but if you're looking for a more modest anthology, you might try "Jimmie Rodgers on Record: America's Blue Yodeler," released by the Smithsonian Collection. Unfortunately, there are no plans to release this on CD. There are also two Rodgers songs on the Smithsonian's "Classic Country Music," revamped and rereleased on four compact discs last year.
Future volumes of the Rounder series will come out every four or six months. They can't arrive too soon.
Hank Williams: Original Singles and Rare Demos Country music didn't hear a voice as distinctive as Rodgers's until Hank Williams had a modest hit with "Honky Tonkin' " in 1947. If Rodgers was the first hillbilly singer to use his mobility to create a universal style, Williams was the first to address a mobile audience and articulate its feelings of dislocation in boom towns and gin joints. Williams did so with one of the most genuine, penetrating voices in the history of American music. He transformed country music as thoroughly as Rodgers had 20 years earlier.
Unlike Rodgers's, Williams's music has never gone out of print and his reputation has never been neglected. Nonetheless, two new reissues package Williams's music in useful forms for CD buyers. In 1987, Polydor released an eight-volume set of 169 songs by Hank Williams, virtually everything he ever recorded under any circumstance. That proved too much for some fans -- especially those who didn't want to wade through Williams's spoken recitations under the pseudonym of Luke the Drifter or his duets with his notoriously off-key wife, Audrey. On the other hand, the old standby "Twenty-Four of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits" left out too many great songs.
Polydor has now solved both of these problems by releasing "The Original Singles Collection ... Plus," a three-CD box set of all 61 songs Williams released as singles during his lifetime, plus four posthumous releases and 19 assorted rarities. That's 84 songs in all, and at least 70 of them are indispensable. The astonishing thing about this collection is just how high a standard Williams maintained in the six years between his first single and his death from alcoholism on New Year's Day 1953. Every vocal sounds like a risky emotional gamble that he somehow pulls off.
Released for the first time is a 1942 recording Williams made at Griffin's Radio Shop in Montgomery, Ala.; unfortunately, the audio quality is awful. Three undubbed demos also appear for the first time. The 22-page booklet in the box set includes some superb photos and a fairly good biography but poor notes on the songs themselves (no details about musicians or recording dates).
The Country Music Foundation discovered more of Williams's unreleased demos and released them as "Just Me and My Guitar" in 1985 and "The First Recordings" in 1986. Now these two albums have been combined into one 24-song compact disc, newly released as "Rare Demos: First to Last." These demos offer fascinating glimpses of Williams performing with just his voice and guitar, but they are no substitute for the immortal singles.