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Jimmie Rodgers Biography

Jimmie Rodgers Biography

 Jimmie Rodgers, known as "The Singing Brakeman" and "America's Blue Yodeler", was the first country music superstar, a status that resulted in another commonly used nickname, "The Father of Country Music". James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the youngest of three sons. His mother died when he was very young, 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 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. Mr. Rodgers found Jimmie his first job working on the railroad, as a waterboy. This is where he learned the cries and moans of the blues and was taught to pick and strum by the rail workers and the hoboes. 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. 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. He relocated to Tucson, Arizona and was employed as a switchman by the Southern Pacific. The job lasted less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife Carrie and daughter Anita) had settled back in Meridian by 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 Tennessee called the Tenneva Ramblers and secured a weekly slot on the station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers.

The Tenneva Ramblers originally hailed from Bristol, Tennessee, and in late July 1927, Rodgers’ bandmates got word that Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, was coming to Bristol to audition and record area musicians. Rodgers and the group arrived in Bristol on August 3, 1927. Later that same day, they 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 and the band broke up and Rodgers arrived at the recording session alone. On Wednesday, August 4, 1927, 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, 1927, to 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, 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.

Rodgers's next-to-last recordings were made in August 1932 in Camden and it was clear that tuberculosis 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 had relocated when "T for Texas" became a hit. With the country in the grip of the Depression, the practice of making field recordings was quickly fading, so in May 1933, Rodgers traveled again to New York City for a group of sessions beginning May 17, 1933. He started these sessions recording alone and completed four songs on the first day. 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 had 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. Jimmie Rodgers died two days later on May 26, 1933 from a lung hemorrhage. He was 35 years old.

When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three (with Fred Rose and Hank Williams) to be inducted. Rogers 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. 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 blues artists, among them Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf.  Jackson, Mississippi, the birthplace of Jimmy 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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