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Jimmie Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897, in Meridian, Mississippi, the youngest of three sons. His mother died when he was very young, and Jimmie spent the next few years with relatives in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. He eventually returned home to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, a maintenance foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, who had settled with a new wife in Meridian.
Jimmie’s affinity for entertaining and the road developed early. By age 13, he had twice organized traveling shows, only to be brought home by his father. The first time, he stole some of his sister-in-law’s bedsheets to make a crude tent. Upon his return to Meridian, he paid for the sheets with money he had made from his show! For the second trip, he charged to his father (without his father’s knowing) an expensive canvas tent. Not long after that, Mr. Rodgers found Jimmie his first railroad job, as water boy on his father’s gang. A few years later, Jimmie became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position secured by his oldest brother, Walter, a conductor on the line.
In 1924, at the age of 27, Jimmie contracted tuberculosis. The disease temporarily ended his railroad career but gave him the chance to get back to his first love, entertainment. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the Southeast until a cyclone destroyed his tent. He returned to railroad work as a brakeman on the east coast of Florida, but eventually his illness cost him his job. He relocated to Tucson, Arizona (thinking the dry climate might lessen the effects of his TB), and worked as a switchman for the Southern Pacific. The job lasted less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife Carrie and daughter Anita) settled back in Meridian in 1927.
Later that year, Jimmie traveled to Asheville, North Carolina. In February 1927, Asheville’s first radio station, WWNC, went on the air, and on April 18, Jimmie and Otis Kuykendall performed for the first time on the station. A few months later, Jimmie recruited a group from Tennessee called the Tenneva Ramblers and they secured a weekly slot on the station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. A review in The Asheville Times remarked that “Jimmy [sic] Rodgers and his entertainers managed ... with a type of music quite different than the station’s usual material, but a kind that finds a cordial reception from a large audience.” Another columnist said, “Whoever that fellow is, he either is a winner or he is going to be.”
The Tenneva Ramblers hailed from Bristol, Tennessee, and in late July of 1927, Rodgers’ bandmates got word that Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company was coming to Bristol to record area musicians. Rodgers and the group arrived in Bristol on August 3 and auditioned for Peer, who agreed to record them the next day. That night the band argued about how it would be billed on the record, which led Jimmie to declare, “All right ... I’ll just sing one myself.”
On August 4, Jimmie Rodgers recorded two songs: “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.” For the recordings, he received $100.
The recordings were released on October 7, 1927, to modest success. In November of that year, Peer recorded Rodgers again at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey. Four songs made it out of this session: “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run,” “Mother Was a Lady,” “Away out on the Mountain” and “T for Texas.” In the next two years, “T for Texas” (released as “Blue Yodel”) sold nearly half a million copies, rocketing Rodgers into stardom.
In the next few years, Rodgers did a movie short, "The Singing Brakeman", and made various recordings across the country. He toured the Midwest with humorist Will Rogers. On July 16, 1930, he even recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9” (also known as “Standin’ on the Corner”) with a young jazz trumpeter named Louis Armstrong, whose wife, Lillian, played piano on the track.
Rodgers’ next to last recordings were made in August 1932 in Camden, and it was clear that TB was getting the better of him. He had given up touring by then but did have a weekly radio show in San Antonio, Texas, where he’d relocated when “T for Texas” became a hit.
In 1933, Rodgers traveled to New York for recording sessions beginning May 17. He completed four songs on the first take. But there was no question that Rodgers was running out of track. When he returned to the studio after a day’s rest, he had to record sitting down and soon retreated to his hotel, hoping to regain enough energy to finish the songs he’d 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, Jimmie recorded “Years Ago” by himself, finishing as he’d started six years earlier, just a man and his guitar. Within 36 hours, “The Father of Country Music” was dead.