September 8, 1897 - May 26, 1933
The Country Music Hall of Fame justifiably hailed “Singing Brakeman” and “Mississippi Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers as “the man who started it all.”
Although his brief six-year career was cut tragically short by tuberculosis, Rodgers became the first nationally known star of country music. His songs about rounders and gamblers, bounders and rounders directly later generations of performers from Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams to Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.
The youngest son of a railroad man, Rodgers was born in the small Alabama town of Geiger and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. At the age of 14, he went to work as a railroad brakeman, where he stayed until a pulmonary hemorrhage sidetracked him to the medicine show circuit in 1925. The years with the trains harmed his health but helped his music. In an era when his contemporaries were singing only mountain and mountain/folk music, Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy and folk. His instrumental accompaniment consisted sometimes of his guitar only, while at other times a full jazz band (horns and all) backed him up.
Many of Rodgers’ best songs were his own compositions, including “T.B. Blues,” “Waiting for a Train,” “Travelin’ Blues,” “Train Whistle Blues” “In the Jailhouse Now” and his legendary thirteen “blue yodels” that began with “T for Texas.” Country fans could have asked for no better hero – someone who thought what they thought, felt what they felt, and sang about the common person honestly and beautifully.
In 1924, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but instead of heeding the doctor’s warning about the seriousness of the disease, he discharged himself from the hospital to form a trio with fiddler Slim Rozell and his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams. Rodgers continued to work on the railroad and perform blackface comedy with medicine shows while he sang. Two years after being diagnosed, he moved his family out to Tucson, Arizona, believing the change in location would improve his health. In Tucson, he continued to sing at local clubs and events. The railroad believed these extracurricular activities interfered with his work and fired him.
Rodgers eventually moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he began singing with the string band the Tenneva Ramblers. He soon heard that RCA Victor talent scout Ralph Peer was recording hillbilly and string bands in the Tennessee town of Bristol. Rodgers convinced the Ramblers to travel to Bristol, but on the eve of the audition, they argued over billing and split up. Rodgers went on to audition as a solo artist, and Peer recorded two songs – “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” – after rejecting his signature song, “T for Texas.”
In November 1927, Rodgers cut four songs, including “T for Texas.” Retitled “Blue Yodel” upon its release, the song became a hit and one of only a handful of early country records to sell a million copies. Shortly after its release, Rodgers moved to Washington, where he began appearing on a weekly local radio show billed as the Singing Brakeman. He followed “Blue Yodel” with “Waiting for a Train” and “In the Jailhouse Now.” Various sessions featured innovative backup approaches ranging from a Hawaiian combo to a jazz band featuring Louis Armstrong. By 1929, Rodgers had become a full-fledged star (he even appeared in a small film called “The Singing Brakeman”), but his health began to decline under the stress of success. He built a large home in Kerrville, Texas, and performed several Depression-era Red Cross benefits with cowboy humorist Will Rogers.
Despite his condition, Rodgers refused to stop performing, telling his wife, “I want to die with my shoes on.” In February 1933, he collapsed and was sent to the hospital. Realizing that he was close to death, he convinced Peer to schedule a recording session in May so that he could provide financial support for his family. At that final session, Rodgers was accompanied by a nurse and rested on a cot in between songs. Two days after the sessions were completed, he died of a lung hemorrhage at the age of 35.
In 1961, Rodgers became the first artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Twenty-five years later, he was honored as a “founding father” with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.