Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music
"His is the music of America. He sang the songs of the people he loved, of a young nation growing strong. His was an America of glistening rails, thundering boxcars, and rain-swept night, of lonesome prairies, great mountains and a high blue sky. He sang of the bayous and the cornfields, the wheated plains, of the little towns, the cities, and of the winding rivers of America." -- inscribed on Jimmie Rodgers' statue in Meridian, Mississippi
Jimmie Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897 in Meridian, Mississippi, the youngest of three sons. His mother died when he was a very young boy, and Rodgers spent the next few years living with various relatives in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. He eventually returned home to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, a Maintenance of Way Foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, who had settled with a new wife in Meridian.
Jimmie's affinity for entertaining came at an early age, and the lure of the road was irresistible to him. By age 13, he had twice organized and begun traveling shows, only to be brought home by his father. Both of these incidents shed light on his drive to perform. The first time he was caught, he had stolen some of his sister-in-law's bedsheets and joined them to make a crude tent. Upon his return to Meridian, he paid for the sheets, having made enough money with his show! For the second trip with his troupe, he had charged to his father (without his knowing) an expensive sidewall canvas tent. It's not known whether or not Jimmie paid for the tent, but not long after that, Mr. Rodgers found Jimmie his first job working on the railroad, as waterboy on his father's gang. A few years later, he became brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position secured by his oldest brother, Walter, a conductor on the line running between Meridian and New Orleans.
In 1924, at the age of 27, Jimmie contracted tuberculosis, and the paradox of this development is bittersweet. The disease temporarily ended his railroad career, but, at the same time, gave him the chance to get back to his first love, entertainment. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the southeast until, once again, he was forced home after a cyclone destroyed his tent. He returned to railroad work as a brakeman on the east coast of Florida at Miami, but eventually his illness cost him his job. In vain, he relocated to Tucson, Arizona (thinking the dry climate might have an effect on his TB), and was employed as a switchman by the South Pacific; the job lasted less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife Carrie and daughter Anita) settled back in Meridian in 1927.
It's not exactly known why Jimmie decided to travel to Asheville, North Carolina, later that year. Some say he was searching for a rumored job on the railroad (one that didn't exist), while others speculate that it was the mountain air. Though he probably gave these as reasons, most likely, it was due to the burgeoning music scene in North Carolina.
In February of 1927, Asheville's first radio station, WWNC, went on the air, and on April 18, at 9:30 p.m., Jimmie and Otis Kuykendall performed for the first time on the station. A few months later, Jimmie recruited a group from Tennessee called the Tenneva Ramblers and secured a weekly slot on the station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. The performances provoked two separate comments that hinted at Rodgers' future success. A review in The Asheville Times remarked that "Jimmy (sic) Rodgers and his entertainers managed...with a type of music quite different than [the station's usual material], but a kind that finds a cordial reception from a large audience." And from another columnist: "whoever that fellow is, he either is a winner or he is going to be."
The Tenneva Ramblers originally hailed from Bristol, Tennessee, and in late July of 1927, Rodgers' bandmates got word that Ralph Peer, a representative of Victor Talking Machine Company, was coming to Bristol to audition and record area musicians. Rodgers and the group quickly mobilized and arrived in Bristol on August 3. Later that same day, they auditioned for Peer in an empty warehouse where he had set up the company's recording equipment. Peer agreed to record them the next day. That night, as the band discussed how they would be billed on the record, an argument ensued, which led Jimmie to declare, "All right...I'll just sing one myself."
Jimmie was on his own, another twist in a long list of fateful circumstances that changed musical history.
On Wednesday, August 4, Jimmie Rodgers completed his first session for Victor. It lasted from 2:00 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. and yielded two songs: "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" and "The Soldier's Sweetheart." For the test recordings, Rodgers received $100.
The recordings were released on October 7, 1927, to modest success, and in November of that year, Jimmie, determined more than ever to make it in entertainment, headed to New York City with two goals: to find out the exact sales status of the first recordings, and to try to arrange another session with Peer.
Peer agreed to record him again, and the two met in Philadelphia before traveling to Camden, New Jersey, to the Victor studios.
Four songs made it out of this session. "Ben Dewberry's Final Run"; "Mother Was A Lady"; "Away Out on the Mountain"; and "T for Texas." In the next two years, the acetate that contained "T for Texas" (released as "Blue Yodel") and "Away Out on the Mountain" sold nearly half a million copies, which was impressive enough to rocket Rodgers into stardom. After this, he got to determine when Peer and Victor would record him, and he sold out shows whenever and wherever he played.
In the next few years, Rodgers was very busy. He did a movie short, The Singing Brakeman, and made various recordings across the country. He toured with humorist Will Rogers as part of a Red Cross tour across the Midwest. On July 16, 1930, he even recorded "Blue Yodel #9" (also known as "Standin' on the Corner") with a young jazz trumpeter named Louis Armstrong, whose wife, Lillian, played piano on the track.
Rodgers' next to last recordings were made in August of 1932 in Camden and it was clear that TB was getting the better of him. He had given up touring by that time but did have a weekly radio show in San Antonio, Texas, where he'd relocated when "T for Texas" became a hit.
With the country in full grip of the depression, the practice of making field recordings was quickly fading, so in May of 1933, Rodgers traveled again to New York City for a group of sessions beginning May 17. He started these sessions recording alone and completed four songs on the first take. But there was no question that Rodgers was running out of track. When he returned to the studio after a day's rest, he had to record sitting down and soon retreated to his hotel in hopes of regaining enough energy to finish the songs he'd been rehearsing.
The recording engineer hired two session musicians to help Rodgers when he came back to the studio a few days later. Together, they recorded a few songs, including "Mississippi Delta Blues." For his last song of the session, however, Jimmie chose to perform alone, and as a matching bookend to his career, recorded "Years Ago" by himself, finishing as he'd started years earlier, just a man and his instrument. Within 36 hours, "The Father of Country Music" was dead.
Thankfully, his legend and legacy are alive and well.