Jimmie Rodgers holds a special place in my heart.
As I have chronicled for years here on this blog, I have worked with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a music festival that celebrates the original Bristol Sessions from 1927, of which Rodgers was a part, for over a decade. The wayfaring troubadour became a part of history when he recorded a couple tracks for Ralph Peer and laid the formation for contemporary country and folk music.
Paul Burch recently delved into the life of Jimmie Rodgers in a big way. The resulting recording, Meridian Rising, is a musical autobiography, with Burch writing songs that chronicle different eras of Rodgers’ life from the perspective of the Blue Yodeler.
Punctuating each track are the sounds that Rodgers would have heard – or created – at any given moment during his life. Though known as a forefather of country music, Rodgers was an encyclopedia of American music. He performed with the legendary Louis Armstrong, and his recording sessions with Peer, who became a close friend, include tracks with The Carter Family, noted blues singers, and even Hawaiian guitarists.
Burch’s efforts on Meridian Rising are masterful, bringing back to life one of our most cherished musical icons.
I recently caught up with Paul Burch to chat about the life of Jimmie Rodgers and the quality of Burch’s yodel.
BRO – If you could sit down with Jimmie and share a cup of coffee, what might you ask him?
PB – I’d like to ask Jimmie what records he had, because wife said he “bought them by the ton.” I’d also like to know about his favorite performers he met before his first record and what he liked about them. I’d like to hear about his failed audition for talent scout H.C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi. Was he hoping to record for Paramount? And I’d like to hear about his session with Louis Armstrong and Clifford Gibson, too. The Mississippi Sheiks said they played a dance with Jimmie. I’d love to hear him play “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” And, lastly, I’d like to play Howlin’ Wolf’s original recording of “Moaning At Midnight,” which was recorded by Sam Phillips, so Jimmie could hear the influence of young Chester, the 14 year old boy he met in Mississippi who wanted to learn his yodel.*
BRO – What is it like to write a song as somebody else?
PB – I’ve been doing it all along. As Rimbaud wrote, “I is another. If the brass wakes the trumpet, it’s not its fault. That’s obvious to me. I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it: I make a stroke with the bow: the symphony begins in the depths, or springs with a bound onto the stage.”
BRO – During this process, did it ever become difficult to wear Jimmie’s skin? Did you come across material that was just too tough to put into song?
PB – I never felt like I was in Jimmie’s skin. I was more of a Max Brod-like colleague – writing down Jimmie’s thoughts as he said them. Occasionally finishing a sentence. I was a sort of executor to the estate of his soul, as it were. And, as Brod said of Kafka, if Jimmie didn’t want his thoughts published, he should have appointed a different executor.
BRO – Can you share one tidbit you learned during your research that we might want to know about Jimmie?
PB – Under stress he was a quick thinker, telling a band of gun toting con men in New Orleans that he didn’t have the cash to pay a massive gambling debt, but that they could collect at his bank back home in Texas, and he wrote them an IOU. It was only after he left the state that they discovered Jimmie had written the IOU for a bank that didn’t exist. He never went back to Louisiana.
BRO – How’s your yodel?
PB – Wouldn’t you like to know.
You can catch Paul Burch at one of Nashville’s favorite music hangouts, The 5 Spot, on February 18th and 25th.
For more information on Paul, his tour schedule, or where you can buy a copy of Meridian, please check out his website.
* Author’s Note – Chester Burnett, the 14 year old mentioned here, grew up to become noted bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.