In the heart of Mississippi, where the blues flowed through the veins of the land, a legend was born. Jimmie Rodgers, often hailed as the "Father of Country Music," was born on September 8, 1897, in Meridian, Mississippi. His life was a testament to resilience, creativity, and the indomitable spirit of a true entertainer.
A Humble Beginning
Jimmie Rodgers' early life was marked by challenges and hardships. He was the youngest of three sons, and his mother passed away when he was just a young boy. As a result, Jimmie spent some years with relatives in southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama. His life took a turn when he returned home to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, who worked as a maintenance foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and had recently remarried.
From an early age, Jimmie displayed a natural affinity for entertaining and the road. At the tender age of 13, he embarked on his first adventure, organizing traveling shows. These shows were short-lived, as he was promptly brought back home by his concerned father. However, what set young Jimmie apart was his resourcefulness. During his first outing, he used bedsheets from his sister-in-law to create a makeshift tent, and when he returned, he paid her back with the proceeds he had earned from his show. On his second journey, he managed to secretly charge an expensive canvas tent to his father. Little did anyone know that these early escapades were just a glimpse of the incredible career that lay ahead.
His father's solution to keep him grounded was to find him a job on the railroad. Young Jimmie started as a water boy on his father's gang. Eventually, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, thanks to his older brother Walter's influence, who was a conductor on the same line.
A Brush with Mortality
In 1924, tragedy struck when Jimmie contracted tuberculosis. This devastating illness temporarily halted his promising railroad career but gave him the opportunity to rekindle his passion for entertainment. He organized a traveling road show that roamed across the Southeast, bringing joy and music to those who crossed its path. Unfortunately, a cruel twist of fate struck when a cyclone destroyed his tent, forcing him to return to railroad work as a brakeman on Florida's east coast. Still, his relentless battle with tuberculosis eventually cost him his job, leading him to relocate to Tucson, Arizona, in search of a drier climate that might alleviate the effects of his ailment.
For a brief time, he found employment as a switchman for the Southern Pacific. However, his tenure there lasted less than a year, and in 1927, the Rodgers family, now including his wife, Carrie, and their daughter, Anita, returned to their Meridian roots.
The Radiant Rise of a Star
The year 1927 marked a turning point in Jimmie Rodgers' life. He traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, where the first radio station, WWNC, had just gone on air. Jimmie, along with his friend Otis Kuykendall, graced the station's airwaves on April 18. In a matter of months, Jimmie had formed a group known as the "Tenneva Ramblers" from Tennessee. They secured a weekly slot on WWNC, performing as the "Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers." The new genre of music they brought to the station was unlike anything the audience had heard before. A review in The Asheville Times noted, "Whoever that fellow is, he either is a winner or he is going to be."
But it wasn't until late July 1927 that fate truly smiled upon Jimmie Rodgers and his bandmates. Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company was making his way to Bristol, Tennessee, to record local musicians. The group, however, found themselves in a debate about how they should be billed on the record, which led Jimmie to declare, "All right ... I’ll just sing one myself."
August 4, 1927, will forever be etched in history as the day Jimmie Rodgers recorded his first two songs: "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" and "The Soldier's Sweetheart." For these recordings, he received $100. The world had yet to comprehend the immense impact these records would have on the realm of music.
On October 7, 1927, Jimmie's recorded songs were released, and they garnered modest success. As November rolled around, Peer recorded Rodgers again at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey. This time, four songs were preserved for posterity: "Ben Dewberry's Final Run," "Mother Was a Lady," "Away out on the Mountain," and "T for Texas," the latter of which would soon be known as "Blue Yodel." This song would go on to sell nearly half a million copies in the next two years, propelling Jimmie Rodgers into stardom.
The Golden Years
In the wake of his newfound fame, Jimmie Rodgers embarked on a remarkable journey. He even ventured into the world of film, starring in a movie short titled "The Singing Brakeman." His music echoed across the country, and he made recordings in various locations, leaving an indelible mark on American music history.
One of the most memorable collaborations of his career took place on July 16, 1930, when he recorded "Blue Yodel No. 9," also known as "Standin' on the Corner," with a young jazz trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. Armstrong's wife, Lillian, accompanied them on the piano, adding a layer of magic to the recording.
But by 1932, Jimmie Rodgers' health was deteriorating. Tuberculosis had taken a heavy toll, and he had to give up touring. Yet, he continued to share his gift with the world through a weekly radio show in San Antonio, Texas. The state of Texas had become his new home after "T for Texas" became a massive hit.
The Bittersweet Farewell
In 1933, Jimmie Rodgers made a final journey to New York for recording sessions that would ultimately mark the end of an era. On May 17, he completed four songs on the first take, but it was evident that tuberculosis was tightening its grip. Returning to the studio after a day's rest, he had to record while sitting down. He then retreated to his hotel, hoping to gather enough strength to finish the songs he had been rehearsing.
The recording engineer hired two session musicians to assist Jimmie when he returned to the studio a few days later. Together, they recorded a few songs, including "Mississippi Delta Blues." However, it was "Years Ago" that would be the final note of Jimmie Rodgers' illustrious career. He recorded it alone, in the same intimate setting in which he began, just a man and his guitar.
Within a mere 36 hours, the world lost one of its most cherished musical talents. On May 26, 1933, Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music," left behind an enduring legacy that continues to inspire musicians and entertain audiences to this day.
In the brief span of his life, Jimmie Rodgers displayed a relentless passion for music, an unyielding spirit, and an unwavering commitment to his