All of country music history is connected by its tradition, with the artists of one generation tracing their sound back to the generations that came before. For male country singers, all roads eventually lead back to Jimmie Rodgers.What is all the more remarkable about his lasting influence is that Rodgers only recorded for six years.
Rodger was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. His father was a railroad man, which is a line of work that would later feature heavily in his material. He loved music from a young age, even as he was running wild in pool halls and dive bars before he even reached his teens. He won a singing contest at age 12, and it inspired him to pursue music as a career.
He ran away from home to join a traveling tent show, and though his father forced him to come home, it wasn’t long before he ran away again, this time joining a medicine show. The harsh life on the road made him come home, where he was given the choice of going back to school or working on the railroad. He chose the railroad, working on the lines and in other workingman’s jobs, while singing with traveling shows as often as he could.
In 1924, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease that would claim his life a few short years later. Ignoring the advice of his doctor, he formed a fiddle trio and hit the road again. His love for singing interfered with his work, and he was laid off from many of his jobs. As the disease took hold, it became impossible for him to do hard physical labor, so he worked as a janitor and other menial jobs while singing on the radio in Asheville.
He had his big break when he joined the Tenneva Ramblers, a string band that eventually took second billing to Rodgers, so popular was his heartbroke yodeling vocals. He convinced the band to relocate to Bristol, Tennessee, where the Victor label was recording talent. It was a move that set country music history into motion. They landed an audition, but the band fought over how they should be billed, and Rodgers ended up auditioning alone.
The audition went well , and Rodgers recorded two sides that weren’t very successful at first. But when he returned to the studio and recorded four more tracks in November of 1927, including his original composition “T for Texas”, Victor struck gold. They titled it “Blue Yodel”, the first in a series of songs that would carry that name, and it became the first country record to sell a million copies.
By the following year, Rodgers was a bona fide star. His records sold well and his concerts were hugely popular. He even appeared in a film called The Singing Brakeman, a nickname that stuck with him for good. Though his health was steadily declining, Rodgers pushed forward, performing in Red Cross concerts with Will Rogers and recording regularly. The Great Depression dramatically slowed his record and concert sales, but he continued to record and perform.
By May of 1933, he was sleeping in a cot at the recording studio. On death’s door, he would gather up strength to cut songs in between his pain and exhaustion. He was determined to complete the sessions, not just for his fans, but also for the financial security of the family he’d soon be leaving behind. Two days after his last sessions were complete, Rodgers was dead at the young age of 33.
Although he only recorded for a short period of time, his impact cannot be overstated, as every male country singer that arrived on the scene in the decades that followed would cite him as their primary influence. When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of only two recording artists elected, entering the hall alongside Hank Williams, a legend who was also heavily influenced by Rodgers.
- Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas), 1927
- Away Out on the Mountain, 1927
- In the Jailhouse Now, 1928
- Daddy and Home, 1928
- Never No Mo’ Blues, 1928
- Waiting for a Train, 1928
- Any Old Time, 1929
- Frankie and Johnnie, 1929
- Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues), 1930
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1962
- The Rounder Series, 1990-1991
- The Singing Brakeman, 1992
- The Essential Jimmie Rodgers, 1997
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