Ernest V. Stoneman’s proper place in country music history
One of 2008’s best country reissues, maybe even the best, is Ernest V. Stoneman: The Unsung Father Of Country Music, 1925-1934. The 46-track collection is smartly packaged, including a small hard-bound book with lots of photos. But it’s the savvy selection of some too-long-unavailable early sides of Ernest “Pops” Stoneman that excites. There’s his first recording and biggest hit, “The Titanic”; duets with his daughter; fuller string-band arrangements with the Dixie Mountaineers; short comic plays such as “Old Time Corn Shuckin’, Parts 1 and 2”; and even two versions (cut six years apart) of Stoneman’s “All I’ve Got’s Gone”, which remains among country music’s great poverty songs and one of its catchiest tunes, too.
“All I’ve Got’s Gone” by Ernest V. Stoneman
This is truly an essential, not to mention long overdue, collection. There is, however, the matter of that title. Not “An Unsung Father of Country Music” but “The Unsung Father” a choice of article clearly intended to not so subtly dispute the long-since-established paternity rights of one Jimmie Rodgers.
The cover’s bold claim is fleshed out in a liner-notes essay by Henry Sapoznik (the man behind that amazing and essential You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole And The Roots Of Country Music set from a few years back). Sapoznik argues that it was only pioneering record producer Ralph Peer’s “post-mortem marketing of Rodgers that firmly established the Singing Brakeman as the putative Father of Country Music” and that “Peer crafted Rodgers’ legend…while having eschewed Stoneman’s, whose recorded output dwarfed Rodgers.” In other words, if Ralph Peer had chosen to mythologize Stoneman rather than Rodgers, or if he’d just let history take its un-manipulated course, then we would likely be hailing “Pops” as the father of the music, not Jimmie.
This is needless overreaching. It is well past high-time that fans and historians paid attention to Ernest Stoneman, and Sapoznik is to be commended for his efforts on Stoneman’s behalf. But to press the case for Stoneman by insisting upon a diminution of Jimmie Rodgers is merely to redress one injustice by perpetrating another.
No musical genre (not even bluegrass) can have a lone inventor. That caveat made, there are good reasons why Rodgers is considered the Father of Country Music and why Stoneman is not. The title of Father here has nothing to do with who came first, of course. If that were the case, we’d be calling John Carson daddy, or Eck Robertson, or, for that matter, Vernon Dalhart (if only we acknowledged the pop essence of even the earliest commercial country music).
Of course, there is no use in denying that the rate of new Jimmie Rodgers releases fell off precipitously after his death, but this is no matter. The determination of artistic paternity is independent of the volume of one’s recorded output.
So why is Rodgers country music’s patriarch? Because he was modern. Listen to him all these decades later, and he is still modern. Like Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby and a very few others, Rodgers helped invent the musical world of the 20th century. His singing is intimate and distinctive and bluesy. His persona is cool yet emotionally present. He is tragicomic. He is perpetually down-to-earth but newly middle class, even cosmopolitan. Indeed, these are among the qualities that enabled Rodgers to become country music’s first nationally-known star, and to set the genre down the road to being an American music, rather than merely an oleo of regional styles, which included but were hardly limited to the upper southeast hillbilly variety at which Stoneman excelled.
Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music because he inspired the country music to come. It was Rodgers’ musical children, after all, who defined, broadened, redefined, expanded, and defined again what country music has been becoming ever since. What would honky-tonk have been without the contributions of onetime Rodgers imitator Ernest Tubb? What would cowboy music, western swing, and C&W have sounded like without, respectively, the foundational work of three more early Rodgers imitators: Gene Autry, Tommy Duncan and Hank Snow? And how would the styles of all these men developed without the model of Jimmie Rodgers? Would they have developed at all?
It is no insult to Ernest Stoneman to admit he lacks a comparable legacy.
And it is no shock that it was the young cosmopolitan Rodgers, rather than the older and older-seeming Stoneman, who attracted imitators even before his death in 1933. For the same reason, it is also no surprise that the genre’s increasingly middle-class audience would readily accept Rodgers as the father of country music when that phrase was first used to describe the singer in the early 1950s. Stoneman, by contrast, hailed from the land that critic Greil Marcus has marked on the map as the Old, Weird America. The defining qualities of Stoneman’s music his innovative use of the autoharp, his attraction to event songs and comic skits, his declaiming vocals, his rhythms’ utter lack of swing, his whole medicine-show and country-square-dance aesthetic all of these identify Stoneman as last-gasp Victorian.
If you want to hear some of the best of what exactly such a style sounded like, and to be edified and amazed anew by its criminally unsung contributions to our musical history, including the musical history of Jimmie Rodgers, then Ernest V. Stoneman: The Unsung Father Of Country Music is the set for you. Buy it.
Just don’t take that title too seriously.