It was probably the second time he ran away from home to start his own traveling show at the age of thirteen when it became obvious to those around him this wasn’t something Jimmie Rodgers was giving up on anytime soon. But it wasn’t until he was struck with a life-changing illness that he had a reason to go all out, and the impact he left behind would last far beyond the living years of the man who became known as the “Father of Country Music.”
James Charles Rodgers was born as the youngest of three sons in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1897. When Rodgers was still very young his mother died of tuberculosis. His father worked as a foreman of a maintenance crew for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and often traveled, so young Rodgers hopped between Mississippi and Alabama under the care of various relatives. Sometime after his father remarried he moved back home to Meridian, but the restless spirit that eventually led him to success made it hard for him to stay home for long.
Perhaps it was his upbringing that made him feel like a wanderer, or maybe the road was just calling him at an early age. Whatever it was, Rodgers felt a strong pull toward music and the open road. A self-taught guitarist and singer at heart, he knew where he was going. Robbing a set of his sister-in-law’s bedsheets for a makeshift tent, he ran away aiming to start his own traveling show. It wasn’t long before his father found him and brought him back home, spending what little he had earned to replace the sheets. After the second time he brought his son home, his father decided it was time to keep the boy’s hands busy.
Shortly after his last attempt as a runaway singer, Rodgers began working on his father’s crew as a water boy. He found an audience among the other railroad workers, and the work seemed to settle him, at least for the time being. In 1920 he married Carrie Williamson, and the young couple started their family that would become complete with two daughters, Anita and June. Alongside his brother and father, Rodgers had worked his way up through the railroad to become a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. But life is full of unexpected twists and turns, which bring both curses and blessings.
Rodgers was twenty-four when he contracted tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed his mother when he was a boy. His body could no longer support the work he did on the railroad, but he still had a family to support at home. And he could still sing. So he did. He traveled over the following few years singing wherever he could find an audience. But it wasn’t until 1927 in Ashville, North Carolina, when Rodgers got his break after teaming up with a group from Tennessee that called themselves Tenneva Ramblers. He landed them a gig on the local radio station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. Their sound was different, not quite what the locals were used to. But they kept listening and maybe some even knew, as one columnist remarked, “Whoever that fellow is, he is either a winner, or he is going to be.”
Later that year, Rodgers and the band traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition in front of Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, a recording company out of Camden, New Jersey. Peer, recognizing something that didn’t come along every day, agreed to record their songs the following day. The night before, the band got into a heated argument over billing on the record, so Rodgers showed up solo the next day. That day, August 4, 1927, Rodgers recorded the first two of more than one hundred songs that made up his career. The world was introduced to Jimmie Rodgers through “Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.”
The first releases were modestly successful, but he continued recording with Victor Studios, recording several songs including “Blue Yodel” that sold nearly half a million copies. Rodgers was famous for his yodeling and was increasingly admired for the genre that was emerging, all his own. It seemed success had come and his career was moving as fast as the trains of his past. He toured with Will Rogers and sang alongside the legendary Louis Armstrong, recording “Blue Yodel No.9” with the young jazz trumpeter. This song, with Armstrong’s wife playing the piano on the recording, has been recognized as one of the songs that shaped the rock and roll genre.
In less than six years, Rodgers was a household name and a legend in his own time. He was reshaping the industry and rightfully earning the moniker “Father of Country Music.” But as Rodgers well knew, life is full of twists and turns, sometimes more curse than blessing.
It was May of 1933. Rodgers’ body was suffering more each day from his disease, but he headed to Camden to record another record. That day, they recorded “Mississippi Delta Blues,” and, his final song of the day’s session, “Years Ago.” The session drained his body of what energy he had left. The next day Rodgers collapsed walking down a street. The Blue Yodeler died two days later.
His songs sang of heartbreak and hard work. The emotional impact of his music set the stage for the emotionally driven songs of everyday life that many of country music’s early stars were known for. He sang about losing his mother and being home with his father. And more than a couple of songs were about the railroad he knew so well. Songs about a life full of twists and turns, blessings and curses. But in the music world, and for those who knew the man personally, Rodgers’ life was a blessing—even in the final days, living it one day at a time, pursuing the dream of his youth, as his health slowly faded from the scene.
Shadows slowly creeping down the prairie trail,
Everything is sleeping – ah, but the nightingale.
Moon will soon be climbing in the purple sky,
Night winds all a-humming this tender lullaby.
Cares of the day have fled, my little sleepyhead,
Stars are in the sky, time that the prayers were said.
My little sleepyhead, to a prairie lullaby.
Jimmie Rodgers, “Prairie Lullaby”
HEAR JIMMIE RODGERS SING “BLUE YODEL NO. 1 (T FOR TEXAS)”
SEE ALL JIMMIE RODGERS PHOTOS HERE