Known as “The Father of Country Music,” “America’s Blue Yodeler” and “The Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers was country music’s first superstar.
With a diverse sound that communicates to people from all regions and of all walks of life, country music comes from the hearts of everyday Americans. Such artists as the Carter Family, Vernon Dalhart and Uncle Dave Macon are among the pioneers of country music, but none was more loved than Rodgers.
Born James Charles Rodgers in 1897, he grew up near Meridian, Miss. His father was a railroad worker and a part-time farmer, while his mother was the daughter of a local landowner. When Rodgers was six years old, his mother died. He spent the next few years living with various relatives. It was during this period of time that Rodgers became exposed to many different musical styles, including vaudeville, pop and dance hall.
As a youngster, Rodgers and trouble often went hand in hand. Following winning a talent contest at age 12, he decided to go out on the road in his own traveling show. However, his father tracked him down. Soon, he ran away again. This resulted in Rodgers having the choice of school or the railroad. He opted to join his father on the tracks.
In 1917, he married Sandra Kelly. By fall, they had seperated, even though she was pregnant. Three years later, he wed Carrie Williamson, a preacher’s daughter. During the first three years of their marriage, the couple battled many problems, ranging from financial to health.
Rodgers was laid off from the railroad and was on the road playing regularly when their second of two daughters died six months after birth due to diphtheria. Though these years were hard, they were equally as important in the development of his style, as Rodgers started to create his distinctive blue yodel and sharpen his guitar skills.
In 1924, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For the most part, he ignored the doctor’s warning of the seriousness of the disease. By 1927, he was living in eastern Tennessee, and performing with a string band, the Tenneva Ramblers. Rodgers heard that Ralph Peer, a Victor talent scout, was recording hillbilly music in nearby Bristol. Not wanting to take a back seat to Rodgers, the Tenneva Ramblers decline to go, thus leaving him to audition as a solo artist.
Once in Bristol, he recorded two songs for Peer, which led to a contract with Victor Records. With a sound that was soulful and raw, he delivered such memorable classics as “T for Texas,” “Waiting for a Train,” “Any Old Time” and “Mule Skinner Blues.” Rodgers’ record sales and massive popularity were far above his nearest contemporary. In all, his output totaled some 110 recordings.
Knowing that his health was quickly diminishing and wanting to garner some extra money for his family, Rodgers traveled to New York City to record in May of 1933. During the session, he was so weak that following each song, he had to stop and lay down to rest. After the 12th song, Rodgers was too sick to continue. He died two days later.
His body was carried back to Meridian by train. As proof of the love and admiration the public had for Rodgers, people lined the railroad tracks all the way from New York City to Meridian as the engineer tied the whistle open in a low moan.
It is safe to say that the vast majority of today’s young country listeners would consider Rodgers’ music as primitive or old-timey. Be that as it may, his impact is phenomenal. He planted the seeds for all male artists to follow. In addition, he accomplished more in his short six year recording career than anyone else would hope to achieve in 25 or 30 years.
Rodgers was a very unique and one-of-a-kind performer. His profound impact on the music community officially became evident when he was inducted as a charter member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Beebe native Charles Haymes is a member of the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.