Meeting Jimmie Rodgers & Barry Mazor: Interview Part 1
Barry Mazor is a familiar name to those who like to read intelligent, passionate, and informative writing about popular music. Born in 1950 and raised in Philadelphia, PA, Mazor was attracted from a very early age to what he calls “simple, American roots music.” After spending the ’70s working by day in the publishing business and on the side writing reviews and features for such noted music press outlets as Crawdaddy and the Soho Weekly News, Mazor gave film school a go and wound up editing a high tech magazine called Advanced Imaging.
An early immersion in an online music community, as Mazor puts it, “changed where I live, what I do for a living, where I met my wife. It changed everything.” As the senior editor for many years at No Depression, the alternative country magazine, and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Mazor became one of the leading music writers of the last decade. And, as the online community he enjoyed was the same one that founded Twangfest, the annual roots festival now run by KDHX itself, Mazor has been a regular visitor to our fair city, and has appeared more than a couple times on the station.
Mazor’s first book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century, has just been published by Oxford University Press. It’s nothing less than an examination of the ways American popular music has changed over the last 80 years, with a close look at the constantly changing status and appropriations of the work Jimmie Rodgers, often called “The Father of Country Music” did between 1927 and 1933.
I sat down recently with Mazor to discuss the book and ideas raised in it.
Q: You said this book came about when an editor came to you.
BM: Yes, there’s also part of this story that I did not know myself until the last few weeks. Paul Bresnick was a very well-known New York editor, and he stopped being an acquisitions editor because it’s not the cool job it used to be. He became an agent on his own trying to package things together, because he could come up with ideas for projects. He was running around asking a bunch of well-known music writers if there was some way there could be a 21st century look at the music of Jimmie Rodgers so he could become a household word in the sense that (Johnny) Cash and (Hank) Williams are. It’s very touching that a bunch of very well-known writers kept bringing up my name. I think the thing they may have been thinking of was the Gene Austin piece that I had done in No Depression. They saw that I had a comfort level with that big leap in time, that I could feel it as contemporary, which is necessary to do this. And I think of it that way. I feel that Jimmie Rodgers in some ways is our contemporary still. He wanted a book that could speak to people that weren’t on to it, or into it. He called me and asked me to do it and I said yes.
Now the interesting thing I found out recently when I was at the POP Conference in Seatlle a few weeks ago is that the reason Paul was running around asking people if somebody could do that is that Greil Marcus, the critic, had bugged the hell out of Paul asking if somebody could do that. He couldn’t but he really wished somebody would. On some kind of level, he’s sort of responsible for this. He’s got the book, and I haven’t heard what he thinks of it yet.
Q: You kind of take a couple of stabs at him.
B: Yeah, but I think they’re fair ones. I say them out of respect. I don’t think they’re shots. I have some things to say about some things he’s written. I have some things to say about things Nic Tosches has written. But those are out of tremendous respect. They are two writers tremendously different from each other, except they are careful, in their different ways. But when you get a hold of a subject, you have to be fearless about it. I wound up with a certain handle on the life story of the music of Jimmie Rodgers. Those guys are so present that the ideas I had to deal with are out there and everywhere – the “old weird America” or Emmett Miller, this guy you never heard of invented everything. These ideas are out there now, and they had to be dealt with. I had to deal with the way that they raised them and I had some issues with some of the ways they raised them.
Q: You said a great line the other night (at an appearance at Subterranean Books in U. City) about the people who think they know about Johnny Cash or Hank Williams but they don’t.
B: Yes, when the question was asked about being a household word, I had to figure out what it means to be a “household word.” It means there’s some simplified one-line bumper sticker version of those guys, so more people think they know something about them than do. And that’s the issue of Jimmie Rodgers, not a lot of people know him on that level. The man’s music is all in print, 75 years later, and people talk about him all the time, and they record his songs all the time. But you have to be a music aficionado on some sort of level to know what that is. I don’t have any illusions any more about what a book can do in pop culture, but part of the assignment was to get more people to have a handle on him.
And one of the things about the approach that I used is it gives people so many points of entry to this stream of the music of Jimmie Rodgers. And he really does connect to them all. If you really love punk rock, or you really love bluesgrass, or, for some reason, you’re still a cowboy music freak, there are ways to see what Jimmie Rodgers was about and how he contributed. Having the detailed discographies, one of the things that’s meant to do is make it accessible to as many people as possible.
Q: There’s always that fun for me, anyway, of looking back at what’s happened and finding new insights into what’s happened.
B: I had to do that, it’s the nature of the beast. And the process of doing it was really kind of an adventure for me. I really mean that, it’s not kind of a hype comment. I had to go back over 80 years and all these twists and turns over where pop music has gone. And I didn’t know all that. I think it’s an understandable misunderstanding of how books like this get made. No, I didn’t have all that in my head. I went out and found it. It was a lot of work. But I had a quest, and I knew what the mission of the book was, to make the power behind the influence of Jimmie Rodgers more accessible and understood, to make it palpable. This is where Jimmie Rodgers is, to meet him as the title goes. This is where he is in what you’re hearing. And I think if you’re trying to make his contribution to our day-to-day music more clear to people, that’s what you need to do.
Q: We know Jimmie Rodgers was a unique individual. You make that clear – for one thing there was only one record with one hint of racism , which at that time was astounding. If he wouldn’t have come along, would somebody else have come along to do what he did?
B: You’re asking me if I believe in the Great Man Theory having written a book about a great man. I think, again, there’s a balance to that. I almost mock the notion of a “father” of country music. It’s probably unicorn rare that anybody invents a music. People always want to have one. That gives you some indication of my idea of the Great Man Theory. But there are people, when the time is right – let me start this paragraph over.
There’s no question, and I think I make this clear in the book, that the moment he comes along in, in many ways, including just the technology of how you get famous, and of how a pop record might spread, and he has more than other people because pop eats itself, more people have heard this record because more people have heard this record. All those factors got to be there. But there’s always some moment. Everybody shows up in a moment. There’s always a context. And it is so easy to draw comparisons between him and a number of other artists who did well in his day in one way or another. But there is a case to be made that he was unique in the combination of ingredients that he brought together in one place which is what enabled him to do what he did. We can never know whether somebody else we never heard might have done the same, but that’s always true. There’s a mythology, I think, that things are always being missed, which is probably – Would that it were so? Of course, it’s partly so. But the idea that there are a million greater talents out there undiscovered is partly romantic. We all hope so, because we just feel better about everybody else.
But, it’s tough, and Jimmie Rodgers worked very hard in show business. I make it very clear that, like writing books like this, it’s also a job of work. His ability, his willingness to throw himself into this thing and do what he did was part of it. You can say that there was a context, that there was a moment, and you can say there was a guy with talent. But, the other thing is that there was a guy showing up. Here’s a guy who went ahead and did it.
Q: One of the themes in the book is the concept that there is no fixed evaluation of music or a musician, that it changes. That Jimmie Rodgers was a superstar, he was forgotten, he’s the father of country music, he’s just this old guy. He’s the Singing Brakeman, he’s a folk musician.
B: Yes, his image is really malleable. I do point out that our attitudes constantly shift about all of these things.
Q: I’m looking to develop that a little bit more because that happens with every kind of music.
B: I think if it doesn’t change like that, it dies. That’s how you know it’s alive.
Q: You refer to Johnny Cash’s 1970 status. (The introductory section of the book focuses on Louis Armstrong’s appearance on the 1970 Johnny Cash TV show, where they dueted on the same “Blue Yodel No. 9” which Armstrong played on record with Rodgers in 1930.)
B: Yes, it’s an intro, but it’s a very calculated one in the sense that the themes that are going to be in the book are all on display, which is how I came to choose it. I wanted people to know – it’s one thing to say Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong came out and did the song, but who were they to people then? It’s very important what this performance was taken to be. We can’t have us looking at it now without saying this is what it felt like in 1970. In that case, I happen to be able to remember, but I’m also going to do what it felt like when Jimmie Rodgers got up on stage in 1930 and I wasn’t there, bub. I think it’s important to know that. What were people taking in. What attitudes or ideas about the performer were they bringing to it? Yes, Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong, not that ancient history any more, were viewed in very different lights in just that amount of time ago.