(1897 – 1933)
A onetime railroad man dubbed “The Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers is widely credited as the Father of Country music. By combining Folk, Hillbilly and Blues with a little bit of Jazz and his trademark yodeling, Rodgers helped create the classic American genre, and influenced countless performers who followed him.
Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi; his mother died when he was a young boy. After wining a talent show at age 12, young Jimmie, itching to try his hand at entertaining, ran away from home to start his own tent show. His father brought him home and offered him the choice of attending school or joining him working for the railroad, and for the next few years Jimmie worked various railroad jobs.
In 1924 Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis and for a while he quit railroad work and focused on music, taking gigs where he could find them and developing his skills as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, with songs like “Waiting for a Train," "Travelin' Blues," and "Train Whistle Blues" reflecting his railroading experience.
Rodgers’ first recordings were made in 1927 by Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company, who would travel the South holding open auditions for RCA Records. He recorded Rogers as part of the legendary “Bristol Sessions,” a pair of recording dates in Tennessee where the Carter Family and numerous other “hillbilly” acts were also recorded – an event Johnny Cash famously called “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
RCA issued a pair of Rodgers’ songs from the sessions – “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” – and called him back to cut some more. In November of 1927 he released "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)" which made use of his unique yodel; the record became a hit, and subsequently a Country classic, covered by artists from Johnny Cash to the Everly Brothers to the Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Over the next few years Rodgers’ fame grew, and he was busy with live appearances and more recording sessions; he also starred in the 1929 short film The Singing Brakeman. Many of his most striking records were recorded with Rodgers’ clear, high tenor accompanied simply by his own guitar, but others featured a variety of musical accompaniment, including a Jazz group with Louis Armstrong on trumpet.
As Rodgers’ fame and his workload increased, his health suffered; however, Rogers continually ignored doctors’ advice to quit the road and rest. By 1932, he was too ill to tour, but he continued to record, and in May 1933 he traveled to New York City to cut some new songs for RCA. Although weak he managed to record a handful of songs, resting on a cot between takes. Soon after the sessions, he died in a New York City hotel, at the age of 35. The music he left behind influenced a generation of early country singers, including Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard (the latter of whom cut an entire album of Rodgers’ tunes.) When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established, Rodgers was the very first figure voted in.