James Charles Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933), known as "Jimmie," was a country singer in the early 20th century known most widely for his rhythmic yodeling. Among the first country music superstars and pioneers, Rodgers was also known as "The Singing Brakeman", "The Blue Yodeler", and "The Father of Country Music".
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. Mr. Rodgers found Jimmie his first job working on the railroad as a water boy. Here he was further taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. A few years later, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position formerly 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 (TB). The disease temporarily ended his railroad career, but at the same time gave him the chance to get back to the entertainment industry. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the Southeastern United States until, once again, he was forced home after a cyclone destroyed his tent. He returned to railroad work as a brakeman in Miami, Florida, but eventually his illness cost him his job. He relocated to Tucson, Arizona and was employed as a switchman by the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept the job for less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife Carrie and daughter Anita) settled back in Meridian in early 1927.
Rodgers decided to travel to Asheville, North Carolina, later that same year. On April 18, at 9:30 p.m., Jimmie, and Otis Kuykendall performed for the first time on WWNC, Asheville’s first radio station. A few months later Jimmie recruited a group from Bristol, Tennessee called the Tenneva Ramblers and secured a weekly slot on the station listed as "The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers."
In late July 1927, Rodgers' bandmates learned that Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, was coming to Bristol to hold an audition for local musicians. Rodgers and the group arrived in Bristol on August 3, 1927, and auditioned for Peer in an empty warehouse. 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, the band broke up, and Rodgers arrived at the recording session the next morning alone. 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: "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep". For the test recordings, Rodgers received $100.
The recordings were released on October 7 earning modest success. In November, Rodgers, determined more than ever to make it in entertainment, headed to New York City in an effort 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, including "Blue Yodel", better known as "T for Texas". In the next two years, this recording sold nearly half a million copies, rocketing 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.
Over the next few years, Rodgers was very busy. He did a movie short for Columbia Pictures, 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 recorded "Blue Yodel No. 9" with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose wife, Lillian, played piano on the recording.
When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three (the others were Fred Rose and Hank Williams) to be inducted. Rodgers was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and, as an early influence, to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. "Blue Yodel No. 9" was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Rodgers was ranked #33 on CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003.
Since 1953, Meridian's Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival has been held annually during May to honor the anniversary of Rodgers' death. The first festival was on May 26, 1953.
Both Gene Autry and future Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis (author of "You Are My Sunshine") began their careers as Jimmie Rodgers copyists, and Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell later did tribute albums. In 1997 Bob Dylan put together a tribute compilation of major artists covering Rodgers' songs, "The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, A Tribute" (Sony - ASIN: B000002BLD). The artists included Bono, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Jerry Garcia, Dickey Betts, Dwight Yoakam, Aaron Neville, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and others. In 1969, country singer Merle Haggard released Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings The Great Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers. Haggard also covered "No Hard Times" and "T.B. Blues" on his best-selling live albums "Okie From Muskogee" (1969) and "Fightin' Side of Me" (1970). "Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)" was covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd on their live One More from the Road album.
On May 24, 1978, the United States Postal Service issued a 13-cent commemorative stamp honoring Rodgers, the first in its long-running Performing Arts Series. The stamp was designed by Jim Sharpe (who did several others in this series), who depicted him with brakeman's outfit and guitar, giving his "two thumbs up", along with a locomotive in silhouette in the background.
Rodgers' legacy and influence is not limited to Country music. He was influential to Ozark poet Frank Stanford, who composed a series of "blue yodel" poems, and a number of later Blues artists. Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of American music between 1927 and 1933, arguably doing more to popularize blues than any other performer of his time. Rodgers influenced many later blues artists, among them Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf. Jimmie Rodgers was Wolf's childhood idol. Wolf tried to emulate Rodgers's yodel, but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. "I couldn't do no yodelin'," Barry Gifford quoted him as saying in Rolling Stone, "so I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine."
Rodgers' influence can also be heard in artists including Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Mississippi John Hurt, whose "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me" is based on Rodgers’ hit "Waiting On A Train". Elvis Presley has also been quoted as mentioning Jimmie Rodgers as an important influence and stating that he was a big fan. Jerry Lee Lewis listed Rodgers as a major stylist and covered many of his songs. Moon Mullican, Tommy Duncan and many other western swing singers also were influenced by him. Gene Autry's earlier material largely copied Rodgers' blues records.
The 1982 film Honkytonk Man, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood was very loosely based on Rodgers' life.
In "Cleaning Windows," Van Morrison sings about listening to Jimmie Rodgers.
On May 28, 2010, Slim Bryant, the last surviving singer to have made a recording with Rodgers, died at the age of 101. They recorded Bryant's song Mother, the Queen of My Heart in 1932.
Meridian, Mississippi, as the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, was the first site outside the Mississippi Delta to receive a Mississippi Blues Trail designation. The ceremony was held at the Singing Brakeman Park located on Front Street and emphasized the importance of Rodgers to the development of the blues in Mississippi. Rodgers was known as the "Singing Brakeman" and the train was influential in the development of the blues both in the Mississippi Delta and throughout the state.
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