Nashville, Tennessee, is known as Music City, with an emphasis on the “country” genre, but it’s in Meridian, Mississippi, that this uniquely American style of music has its roots. Jimmie Rodgers, widely regarded as “the father of country music,” was born in Meridian in 1897, and by age thirteen had discovered his love of singing and guitar picking. In his late twenties, he recorded a few tunes for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and his rhythmic, multi-pitched yodels on the song “Blue Yodel” pushed its sales to almost half a million copies, making him an overnight sensation.
Despite his brief career—he died in 1933 at age 35—his contributions to music have endured. When the Country Music Hall of Fame was founded in 1961, Rodgers was the first inductee. And his influence is not limited to country. Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan counted Rodgers among their inspirations, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well. In 1997 he was only the second person to be named an “American Music Master.”
Meridian honors this famous native son at The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum, a small space that’s packed with sheet music and hand-written lyrics, original copies of his early recordings, photos, letters, his U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, and more. But the real “must-see” is Rodgers’ Martin guitar, valued at $1 million. Visitors can gaze at it through the front window of its climate-controlled safe. Made from spruce, Brazilian rosewood, ebony, and mahogany with Rodgers’ name spelled out in mother-of-pearl on the neck, it is a true work of art.
The museum (and The Jimmie Rodgers Foundation that runs it) keeps Rodgers’ legacy alive with the Jimmie Rodgers Festival held every May. Talent contests, concerts featuring local, regional, and national artists, and a country-music symposium combine during the event to promote Rodgers’ and Meridian’s diverse musical heritage.
EVEN MORE MUSIC
Meridian’s role in America’s musical history doesn’t stop with Jimmie Rodgers. The city is also home to Mississippi Country Music Trail markers honoring Elsie McWilliams (who wrote many of Rodgers’ songs) and Moe Bandy, who racked up ten No. 1 hits on country music charts in the 1970’s.
Downtown, the lovely MSU Riley Performing Arts Center hosts concerts and musical performances in a 900-seat, 1889 opera house that was returned to its former glory in 2006. The space once hosted vaudeville shows and traveling minstrels but was forced to close in 1927 when movie theatres won the public’s attention. For years it sat silent and untouched, making a complete restoration of its intricate carvings and other aspects possible.
OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE
Right next to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum sits the The Dentzel Carousel, a National Historic Landmark that has been in operation since 1909 and is still spinning and thrilling kids of all ages with its brightly-colored animals and classic carnival atmosphere.
Also nearby is Merrehope, a twenty-room, fully restored Neoclassical Revival house that was originally built as a three-room cottage in 1858. It was added onto and embellished by various owners, becoming the stately mansion it is today in 1904. During the Civil War, it was one of only a handful of structures in all of Meridian spared from General Sherman’s torches. He reportedly said it was “too pretty to burn.” The house is one of the stops on the newly formed Meridian Civil War Trail, which also includes the site of a Sherman “bow tie,” the implement he and his troops used to destroy rail lines all over the South.
GRAB A BITE OF HISTORY
Stop in for lunch at Mississippi’s oldest restaurant, Weidman’s, opened in in 1870. This downtown eatery is just a few blocks from the Riley Center and sets out crocks of creamy peanut butter and baskets of crackers on every table to whet diners’ appetites. It’s hard to choose just one thing from the selection of Southern comfort food as well as more sophisticated fare, like Trout Almandine, an item that’s been on the menu for decades. End on a sweet note with a local favorite, the rich and velvety Black Bottom Pie.
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