As country music's first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers' songbook and style have been celebrated by everyone from Louis Armstrong to The Cramps. His stamp is heard on every generation of country musicians, and the repercussions of his work have fanned out into all the related genres. Steve Forbert, having made a name for himself as a folkie, spent the last couple of decades in and out of Nashville, working with ex-E-Streeter Garry Tallent (whose production is key to this album), Pete Anderson, and others. Forbert's continued to write, record and tour, though never seeming to fully capitalize on the critical response to his earlier work-- which isn't to suggest that his music and artistic vision haven't progressed and deepened -- they have, perhaps even more so out of the mainstream spotlight.
The pairing of Forbert and Rodgers may have been inspired by their joint place of birth, Meridian, MS, but a spin through this disc shows a deeper musical connection. Forbert's warbling rasp of a voice is brilliantly transported by these songs to the decades that first heard them sung. It's a neat bit of alchemy that finds Forbert a crooner in the 1920s medicine shows and 1930s Vaudeville reviews of Rodgers' lifetime. Forbert's voice has always been an acquired taste, but -- almost magically -- its most unusual qualities, framed by Tallent's inventive production (and a superbly talented cast of backing musicians), are exactly what propel these tracks.
Across twelve songs closely associated with Rodgers (ten from his own pen), Forbert takes in many of the same influences that originally fueled the Singing Brakeman. Bobby Ogdin's saloon-styled rolling piano of "My Blue Eyed Jane," the mesh of life and the rails on "Train Whistle Blues," and the yodeling (which, according to Forbert is merely "a good spirited stab") of "Waiting on a Train" provide the essentials of Rodgers without being reduced to imitation. A few tracks turn on the electrics, such as the swamp-guitar of "Ben Dewberry's Final Run" and the up-beat Rockpile-by-way-of-the-Bobby-Fuller-Four romp of "My Rough and Rowdy Ways," but even with the amps plugged in, they hang on to the country heart of each song.
Fine listening for both Forbert's fans and lovers of the Rodgers songbook. 4-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings.