Being the cousin of an American folk music icon would no doubt make it difficult, not easier, to establish one's own identity as a performer. What if there was so little information available about an obscure performer that the family connection was impossible to completely confirm? One thing is for sure -- the early recordings of Jesse Rodgers sound a whole lot like those of the famous Jimmie Rodgers, complete with blue yodel, similar sort of song topic, and carbon-copy guitar picking and vocal phrasing. In fact, the same old-timey music researchers who decided to find out who Jesse Rodgers actually was seemed to have agreed on one thing -- there were legions of Jimmie Rodgers imitators, but Jesse did it about the best, cousin or not.
A 1950 edition of Country Song Roundup featured an interview with Jesse Rodgers in which he mentioned that his mother had raised Jimmie as well. However, there are those who feel this particular magazine should be kept on the fiction shelf at the library. One of the presidents of the Jimmie Rodgers Society was quoted describing Jessie as "a likeable fella, but a liar," although the Society's official position seems to be that the men were cousins "of a sort," which, in the manner of the old joke about jazz, might be close enough for folk music. Writer Mike Paris researched Jesse for the British Old Time Music magazine, and in the process absolutely confirmed the family relationship via Jimmie's daughter, Anita Rodgers Court. Jimmie Rodgers had been a frequent visitor in Jesse's home; both families worked in the railroad. Jesse's ability to play so closely in the Rodgers style had, in the end, an easy explanation: Jimmie had actually taught him to play guitar.
Jesse's mother died when he was 12, and he was relocated to southwest Texas to live with an uncle. This new location, right on the edge of the Mexican border, exposed Jesse to a different atmosphere than Mississippi. The cowboy lore was previously just something he had soaked up from Jimmie's songs. After marrying and beginning to raise his family, his famous cousin inspired him further and Jesse started devoting more time to music than farming, going full-time with the music in 1932. He got onto a string of powerful Mexican radio stations, probably with a leg up from Jimmie. Now cousin Jesse was just as busy singing, sometimes five shows a day in which he was also hawking the sponsor's products, often poultry. Jimmie Rodgers died the following year, and of course record companies, such as Victor, who had done well with hillbilly and cowboy music, were looking for new blood. Jesse was brought into the studios in 1934. Over the next three years, he recorded his most famous material, including "Roughneck Blues" and "Rattlesnake Daddy." Jesse began his recording career as a soloist, but later added other players, such as Dick Bunyard on pedal steel and the Hawaiian musician Charles Kama, who, with his group Moana Hawaiians, had also backed Jimmie.
Jesse recorded and performed mostly his own material, and the traditional numbers he chose were also altered considerably and published under his own name. Despite the general quality of his recordings, his career never took off outside of his home base, and perhaps the audience was wary that Jesse was simply cashing in on the Rodgers name, or trying to. The record company participated in what might have been either promotion or confusion, putting out a split disc with songs by both Rodgers. Jesse's skeptics were probably not appeased by his publicity photos, as he always dressed up exactly like Jimmie had.
In the late '30s and '40s, Jesse worked on the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago and with a group called the Lazy K Ramblers in Kansas City. He made new recordings for the Sonora label in the mid-'40s, and by this time had ditched the blue yodel and was doing almost completely cowboy material, including a recording of the chestnut "Back in the Saddle Again." He settled in Philadelphia in 1945 and began a long run on station WFIL. He went back to the Victor label and had a few hits, including "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night," a honky tonk classic whose title has never been adjusted for inflation. He appeared in the first live television Western, The Western Balladeer for WPTZ, which led to his own show, Ranger Joe. His own horse, Topez, even became something of a celebrity through this show, of which more than 500 episodes were produced. The two were in demand for personal appearances, including parades which Jesse would lead astride the Palomino. Singer Sally Starr joined the act and wound up marrying one of the members.
By the end of the '50s, it seemed like Jesse could have almost become a household name, as he had a quarter of a million kids signed up through his fan club -- but emphysema came along. He was forced to retire, and by 1963 was completely unable to sing. He moved to Houston to be near his sister, and tried to maintain his creativity by writing songs and stories. In the last ten years of his life, he weighed less than 100 pounds.
His son, Jimmie O. Rodgers, began negotiating with Victor about reissues during the last years of Jesse's life. The deal was finally signed a year before Jesse died and two albums were released on the Astro label, difficult to find at the time of their release and impossible in the years thereafter. Exposure to his music will lead listeners to conclude that although Jesse certainly began his career imitating Jimmie Rodgers, as his career went on he began following developments in country & western music, joining a group of country artists who were comfortable not only with old-timey cowboy songs, but honky tonk and rockabilly as well. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi