- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

The father of country music was actually a rock 'n' roller ahead of his time, argues a folk-rocker who has recorded a tribute album to "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers.
"Any Old Time" by singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, will be released Tuesday by Koch records. It's the 10th studio album by the 47-year-old Mr. Forbert, who, like Rodgers, is a native of Meridian, Miss.
"What gets me about Jimmie is he's just the real deal," Mr. Forbert says. "The way he captured the human experience; he's just a great artist."
Rodgers, also known as "America's blue yodeler," was 35 years old when he died in 1933. Although his recording career was brief just six years he set the tone for the early country-music industry.
Suffering from tuberculosis, he was forced to give up railroad work in 1924. His big break came when he was recorded by talent scout Ralph Peer. Rodgers became a major star with songs such as "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)," "Waiting for a Train" and "TB Blues."
"Jimmie was called a hillbilly singer, but that was not his attitude," Mr. Forbert says. "He really had kind of a Gene Vincent attitude and kind of an Elvis attitude. He was a drinker and partied, and he had that joy for life, and he wasn't interested in being like Fiddlin' John Carson." (Gene Vincent was a rock and rockabilly vocalist beginning in the 1950s.)
One of the songs on the album, "My Rough and Rowdy Ways," is a galloping Buddy Holly-style romp. To Mr. Forbert, it's also a small leap from "Ben Dewberry's Final Run" to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."
Gary Tallent of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, who co-produced "Any Old Time," also sees the rocker in Rodgers.
"His songs borrowed from everywhere romantic tunes, blues, jazz which is exactly the definition of rock 'n' roll," Mr. Tallent says.
Rodgers was the first artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. Twenty-five years later, he was inducted as a founding father at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He is a cultural force who stands among giants such as Hank Williams Sr., Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Forbert says. "He had that kind of relationship which somebody like Bruce Springsteen enjoys today with his audience.
"I wonder now if some of it didn't come from knowing his days were so numbered because he was dying of tuberculosis. I don't know what went through his mind, but there's a strong spiritual thing about Jimmie Rodgers. It's really heavy."
Growing up in Meridian, Mr. Forbert took guitar lessons from one of Rodgers' relatives and played in a band with another. He doesn't see any parallels with Rodgers' career, however, or identify with him.
"No, not at all," Mr. Forbert says. His "Alive on Arrival" was a critics' favorite in 1978, and he hit a commercial peak the next year with "Romeo's Tune."
"I've already outlived him by 11 years, and he was a completely different person than me," Mr. Forbert says. "He was very showy. He didn't have any problems about coming into town and standing up in a motel window yodeling out to promote the show that night, and maybe trying to reel in a couple of gals."
Mr. Forbert adds: "That's not me at all."
• • •
Early in his career, Mr. Forbert's folk-rock, harmonica and lyrical outlook tagged the scratchy-voiced singer as a Bob Dylan clone.
Tension with Sony Records two unreleased albums remain in the vaults stalled his career. He re-emerged in 1988 with the brilliant "Streets of This Town" album on Geffen Records, but after one more album, he moved to independent labels.
"I consider myself really a pop artist," he says, "but I've been able to survive because I'm a folk-rocker and can play solo. That's been the thing for the longevity."
Doing a relevant tribute album to Rodgers was tricky because many of the songs are dated, trading on things such as the romance of hopping trains.
"You can't even hitchhike anymore," Mr. Forbert says, "and his records are clearly on the other side of the fence, as far as technology goes. His records sound old-timey. It's hard to get a big public appreciation of records that have a lower fidelity."

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