Full name, James Charles Rodgers; born September 8, 1897, in Meridian, Miss.; died of tuberculosis May 26, 1933, in New York, N.Y.; son of Aaron W. (a railroad section foreman) and Eliza (Bozeman) Rodgers; married second wife, Carrie Williamson, April 7, 1920; children: (second marriage) Carrie Anita.
Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music singer who achieved national fame, international recognition, and superstar status. Today the laconic Rodgers is known as the "Father of Country Music," even though his career spanned a brief six years (but consisted of over one hundred recordings). Rodgers was a truly eclectic musician who was able to combine the popular tunes of urban dance clubs and Tin Pan Alley with rural instrumentation and vocals; he punctuated his best-known songs with an original "blue yodel" that has since been widely imitated in both country and bluegrass music. In the midst of the Great Depression, when 78 r.p.m. records cost a staggering seventy-five cents, each Rodgers release sold nearly a million copies. Unfortunately, Rodgers died of tuberculosis at the height of his fame, relinquishing his place on the stage to a host of imitators.
According to Chris Comber and Mike Paris in Stars of Country Music, Rodgers "popularized country music by taking it out of its rural environment and setting it firmly on the road to the multimillion-dollar industry it is today. He did this by fusing many of the accepted styles in popular music and mixing them with his own brand of genius." Rodgers could play guitar and banjo, he wrote some of his songs and adapted all the others to suit him, and he borrowed styles from such widely-scattered sources as blues, ballads, vaudeville entertainment, and Hawaiian numbers. Small though it is, the Rodgers repertory contains every sort of song associated with country music today, from lovelorn lament to railroad misadventure to good-natured travelling tunes.
Rodgers was more than a competent musician, however. He was an endearing entertainer whose easy stage presence was captured on his recordings. He created a believable--if not terribly admirable--stage persona that reached audiences in the Deep South and beyond. As Bill C. Malone puts it in Country Music U.S.A., Rodgers "brought into clear focus the tradition of the rambling man which had been so attractive to country music's folk ancestors and which has ever since fascinated much of the country music audience. This ex-railroad man conveyed the impression that he had been everywhere and had experienced life to the fullest. His music suggested a similar openness of spirit, a willingness to experiment, and a receptivity to alternative styles." Comber and Paris offer a similar observation. Rodgers's informal approach, they write, "gave each listener something with which he could identify. Rodgers's sad songs were for those who were sad, his railroad songs were for the railroaders, his hobo songs were for the hoboes, his love songs with their tender lyrics were for lovers, and his bawdy songs were for those who could still enjoy themselves in times of adversity. Jimmie Rodgers was genuine. He had lived all his lyrics: he had been sad, glad, gay, blue, broke, and in love. He had been a railroad man, and he had hoboed when he had to. Thus his recordings told of true-life experiences in a down-to-earth, unaffected way."
James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was four, and he himself was a sickly child who often missed school. Because his father worked as a section foreman on the Mobile and Ohio railroad, Rodgers was passed from relative to relative in various small Mississippi towns. In 1911 he dropped out of school and went to work with his father on the railroad, beginning as a water boy. There, as he brought water to the black laborers, he began to pick up the music that was part of every railroader's day. On noon lunch breaks the black musicians taught him the rudiments of banjo and guitar, and he began to dream of a career as a performer.
Dogged by ill health, Rodgers worked on the railroads for more than fourteen years. He was primarily employed as a brakeman, and his work took him from the South to the Rocky Mountains. During one of his numerous periods of unemployment he tried to support his wife and daughter by singing in blackface in a minstrel show. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924 and almost died when a lung hemorrhaged. The illness--one of the most feared in those days--forced Rodgers to retire permanently from railroading. As an alternative he formed a dance band with his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, and a violinist named Slim Rozell. Comber and Paris write: "This short-lived excursion into the dance band style introduced [Rodgers] to the melodies of popular music, many of which he later incorporated into his recordings, and allowed him to spend some time with his sister-in-law, who was a talented musician and composer."
By 1927 Rodgers had a modest musical career under way, with a short stint on an Asheville, North Carolina, radio station as the high point. That year an executive for Victor Records, Ralph Peer, announced that he would audition local talent at a portable studio in Bristol, Virginia. Rodgers was one of a number of entertainers who descended on Bristol, but at the last moment his backup band deserted him. Thus he appeared before Peer as a solo artist. Rodgers sang "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" to his own guitar accompaniment, and Peer signed him to a contract. Rodgers's first record was released in October, 1927, and even though it presented nothing particularly original, it sold well. Within five weeks of the Bristol session, Rodgers travelled to New York City quite on his own initiative and pressured Peer to make more records. It was then that Rodgers recorded "T is for Texas," an original blue yodel that is better known as "Blue Yodel Number One."
Comber and Paris note that when "T is for Texas" was released early in 1928, it "caught on like wildfire." Rodgers's income leaped from nearly zero to more than $2000 per month in just six months, and he quite willingly began to cut a number of records. The blue yodels proved especially popular, leading some to call Rodgers "America's Blue Yodeler," but other tunes found wide audiences as well. In 1929 Rodgers appeared in a short film, The Singing Brakeman , that provided his other nickname. By that time he had called in his sister-in-law with her library of music, and he was recording as fast as his ill health would allow. Needless to say, Rodgers was in great demand as a live performer, but he was never able to maintain the rigorous pace that touring demanded. When he did appear live--usually in the Deep South near his Texas home--he played for no more than twenty minutes. This acknowledged frailty only increased Rodgers's popularity, especially when he sang "T.B. Blues" and "Whippin' That Old T.B."
Rodgers found fantastic fame and prosperity even as the Great Depression descended. He indulged in every extravagance, delighting those in his audience who could barely afford to buy his records. Radio helped to propel his career, and a veritable army of aspiring country singers began to emulate their idol. Tragically, Rodgers's tuberculosis worsened every time he tried to exert himself, and by 1933 he was hospitalized with little expectation of survival. In April, 1933, he rallied just long enough to travel to New York for one last session. Between takes he rested on a cot, attended by a private nurse. Just as the session ended he suffered a serious hemorrhage and died in his room at the Taft Hotel. The whole nation mourned, and no less than four testimonial songs about him became best-sellers.
Malone writes: "In assessing Jimmie Rodgers' influence on American folk music and on a later generation of commercial performers, one can safely use the adjective 'phenomenal.' Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a performer in the whole broad field of pop music--whether it be Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra--who has exerted a more profound and recognizable influence on later generations of entertainers. No one as yet has made a full-scale attempt to determine how many of his songs have gone into popular or folk tradition, and there is no way to measure the number of people, amateur and professional, who have been inspired by him to take up the guitar or try their luck at singing. With the emergence of Jimmie Rodgers, country folk finally had one of their own to use as a model--a personification of the success that might be possible in the world of music, and the possessor of a magnetic style and personality that might be used to attain that success." Malone cites Rodgers for that distinctly country characteristic, an "effortless informality, marked by a very personal approach which insinuated its way into the hearts of listeners, making them feel that the song was meant just for them."
Jimmie Rodgers was the first inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame when it opened in 1961. Many of his recordings are still available on the RCA label.
by Anne Janette Johnson
Jimmie Rodgers's Career
Left school in 1911 to work on the railroad; began as water boy for Mobile and Ohio line, became callboy and brakeman; retired due to ill health, 1924. Began professional music career, 1925, working as black-face singer-banjo player with travelling show; formed band the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, 1926, had radio debut on WWNC (Asheville, N.C.), 1926. Signed with Victor records, 1927, had first hit "Blue Yodel Number One (T is for Texas)," 1928.
- Selective Works
- The Best of Jimmie Rodgers MCA, 1988.
- Best of the Legendary Jimmie Rodgers RCA.
- Country Music Hall of Fame RCA.
- Jimmie the Kid RCA.
- Jimmie Rodgers RCA.
- My Rough and Rowdy Ways RCA.
- My Time Ain't Long Victor.
- Never No Mo' Blues RCA.
- The Short but Brilliant Life of Jimmie Rodgers RCA.
- This Is Jimmie Rodgers RCA.
- Train Whistle Blues RCA.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
- Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
- Rodgers, Carrie, My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb Publications, 1935.
- Shelton, Robert and Burt Goldblatt, The Country Music Story: A Picture History of Country and Western Music, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966, reprinted, Arlington House, 1971.