In the opening minutes of the engrossing Ken Burns film Country Music, premiering Sunday on PBS, CMA Award-winning singer Kathy Mattea recalls her days as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the hours she spent in close study of one of the museum’s greatest treasures, “The Sources of Country Music,” a six-by-ten-foot mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton and completed just before his death in 1975. With gospel singers, a cowboy strumming guitar, fiddlers, a dulcimer player, and an African-American banjo picker, the painting represents the early musical performers of the genre. But the most striking object depicted in the artwork is the locomotive in its background. With steam billowing from it, the train is rendered so as to appear in forward motion, winding its way on the steel rails into a future illuminated with promise.
The train’s significance in country music cannot be overstated, as any scan of classic country song titles will prove. From Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” to Guy Clark’s “Texas, 1947,” from the romantic to the tragic, train songs were a staple of the genre long before the first of them was ever committed to record. Once the recording industry began, “hillbilly” singers and string bands put numerous railroad songs on wax, but no one with perhaps a more trained eye and ear on the subject than Jimmie Rodgers, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist acknowledged as the Father of Country Music.
A railroad water boy at 13, and later a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, Rodgers, along with the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, and several other acts, would be an integral part of what has become widely known as country music’s “Big Bang” — the 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, organized by Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company (known today as RCA Records). With his brief but legendary career, the Mississippi native Rodgers revolutionized country music as a commercial venture, becoming not only an inspiration for future country icons including Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and Merle Haggard, but also blazing a trail by recording with a young jazz musician named Louis Armstrong.
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In November 1929, Rodgers was in Camden, New Jersey, the home of the Victor label, where he would perform in a nine-minute film titled The Singing Brakeman. As an early “talkie” featuring complete musical numbers, the film could be considered one of the first-ever country music videos. Set outside a “railroad eating house,” Rodgers enters the scene and interacts with a pair of women, one a waitress and the other who sits in a rocking chair knitting and requests that he sing her favorite song, “Waiting for a Train.” After a few strums on his guitar, Rodgers perfectly mimics the sound of a lonesome train whistle and begins singing the tune, which tells the sad tale of a penniless traveler on his way from “Frisco going back to Dixieland,” hoping to get there by train.
Also featured in the short film is the sweet, heart-tugging “Daddy and Home,” in which Rodgers longs to put aside his wandering ways and dreams of returning to “an old Southern town and the best friend that I ever had.” Rodgers shifts emotional gears yet again with the closing number, “T for Texas,” in which the rejected singer tells the song’s antagonist Thelma not to worry since he “can get more women than a passenger train can haul.” As Rodgers sings — and waits for the coffee he was promised — the waitress stands inside at the window, looking on with a smile and happily keeping time with the tune, as the brakeman sings, first of his search for a pistol to do away with Thelma once and for all, and then, in the final verse, for a shotgun to put an end to the rounder who stole away his gal.
In his award-winning book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century, author Barry Mazor notes that because of Rodgers’ close connection to Sara, Maybelle, and A.P. Carter, it was often assumed that they were the other stars of this short film. But the actresses (and the man who appears briefly near the start of the film) are, indeed, not members of the Carter Family. Mazor also writes that another version of the film exists with Rodgers changing some of his dialogue and song lyrics, although both versions would likely have been shot on the same day.
The life — and death at 35 years old — of Jimmie Rodgers and his importance in the growth and development of country music is featured prominently in the first episode of Country Music. Week 1 of the series airs Sunday through Wednesday, with Week 2 beginning September 22nd.