I’ve been anticipating the release of Steve Forbert‘s Any Old Time, a collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs, ever since I heard about the project a little less than a year ago. At the time, I thought who better than the quirky, folky and folksy, hard to categorize, ultra-talented songwriter and vocal stylist, Steve Forbert to embark on such a project? No one. Any Old Time has lived up to my expectations completely. The 12 songs on the CD were chosen from the more than one hundred Jimmie Rodgers recordings. Forbert steered clear of tunes that, to his ears, sounded a little too dated, as well as the ones that had to do with Rodgers’s tuberculosis, the disease which ultimately took the highly influential singer/songwriter’s life in the spring of 1933.
Forbert had early success in the late ‘70s with “Romeo’s Tune”, but then became mired down in the usual major label bull. He made five records for Columbia, the fifth not released until recently, and finally managed to get out of the unhealthy business relationship. Eventually, Forbert, originally from Meridian, Mississippi, which, by the way, is also the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, made his way from New York’s dead folk scene of the ‘80s to the fertile songwriter Mecca of Nashville, Tennessee. There, with the help of folks like Gary Tallent, bassist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Dwight Yoakam’s guitarist/producer Pete Anderson, managed to resurrect his career. Forbert’s been thriving ever since.
Any Old Time opens with a spirited version of Rodgers’s “Waiting on a Train”. Forbert yodels, as only Forbert could. And for whatever reason, humility, I guess, it works. The clincher here, though, as on many of these tracks, is the honky tonk, ragtimey piano playing of Bobby Ogdin. His warbling, staccato, and controlled piano chops lend the most authentic period touches, bringing to mind the music from old westerns, the compositions of Scott Joplin, the jazz of Fats Waller, and the blues of Bessie Smith’s recordings. Which is precisely where Jimmie Rodgers’s music and legacy lay. Country music has claimed him as one of their forefathers, constantly mentioning Rodgers in the same breath as the Carter family, but, Jimmie Rodgers’s music is, in fact, much more than just country, much broader in scope than what the Carter family became so famous for. Rodgers’s music is an amalgam of all-styles-American of his day and age. And Forbert’s band, probably even more so than Forbert himself, have lived up to the challenge of recreating this very American music.
The tracks with Forbert’s most personal touches are “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run”, “Blue Yodel #9”, and “Desert Blues”. “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” was performed and recorded but not written by Rodgers. The production is minimalist, opening with a rock steady, lilting drumbeat soon joined by a guitar riff reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, a band whose interpretations of classic American folk songs gained them great fame. Nothing more than bass, drums, electric guitar, and sparse organ rounds this one out, and that’s all it needs. Forbert and company really get down on “Blue Yodel #9”, giving it the standard Muddy Waters treatment. “Desert Blues” once again brings to mind the rhythms, bluesy melodies, and playfulness of the Grateful Dead. Each of these tracks is laid back, something you can see yourself dancing to at a friend’s backyard barbecue.
“Miss the Mississippi and You”, a wonderfully sentimental waltz, with all the requisite yodeling, banjo and accordion, makes you want to run out and buy a Victrola and a bunch of 78’s just so you can hear that scratch. Another waltz, “Why Should I Be Lonely”, makes you want to learn how to waltz.
The more melancholy tracks such as “Gambling Barroom Blues” and “Train Whistle Blues” are as dark and violent as any Eminem tune and make you wonder again what all the fuss is about; we’ve been singing songs of violence since man started making up songs. “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” is a joyful romp, a la Buddy Holly. Any Old Time is just a lot of good fun, and it’s clear that Forbert had a ball making it.
The album concludes with “My Carolina Sunshine Girl”, another sentimental tune, and the type for which Rodgers became so well known. The dominant force on this one is, once again, Ogdin on the ragtimey piano. The recording is brief and fades out at the end, evoking an image of stepping out of a saloon into the night and hearing the music dissipate in the evening air with each step you take.