The world knows the late great Jimmie Rodgers by many nicknames – America’s Blue Yodeler and The Singing Brakeman are among the most prominent. However, the most fitting is the Father of Country Music. As one of the first real country music stars, Rodgers’ influence on the genre is undeniable. He died after a long battle with tuberculosis on May 26th, 1933 at the age of 35. Today, we’re going to look back at the life and impact of one of the most important musicians in country music history.
As we dig deeper into his tragically short life and career, check out our playlist, Jimmie Rodgers: Remembering the Father of Country Music. While you’re at it, be sure to follow Outsider on Spotify to get all the best music from our favorite artists.
Jimmie Rodgers’ Early Years
James Charles Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897, in Meridian, Mississippi. His father was a railroad section foreman, but young Jimmie Rodgers had his eyes set on stardom. At the age of 13, he won a talent contest and ran away with a traveling medicine show. Before long, Rodgers found himself stranded far from home. As a result, his father brought him home and put him to work on the railroad. According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, he rode the rails for 12 years – through WWI and into the early 20s – while holding several different jobs including brakeman.
However, this occupation didn’t take Jimmie Rodgers’ eyes off of his original prize. Instead, it allowed him to travel around the Southeast and absorb a wide variety of musical influences. He heard yodeling, folk songs, early jazz, and hillbilly music. However, the most crucial influence on Rodgers was the blues he learned from Black musicians. He combined those influences to create a sound that stood out from the crowd.
Decades later, many of the biggest names in country music cite Jimmie Rodgers as an influence. Hank Snow, Gene Autry, Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and countless other icons have acknowledged the Singing Brakeman’s influence on their music. But, that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to the impact that Rodgers had on the genre.
The Bristol Sessions: A Star Is Born
Like many people of the era, Jimmie Rodgers contracted tuberculosis in the early 20s. In 1924, he quit the railroad and pursued music full-time. For the next few years, Rodgers played on street corners and appeared on North Carolina-based radio station WWNC where he fell in with the Tenneva Ramblers, a string band from Bristol, Tennessee.
After the radio show they played on was canceled, the band changed their name to The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. In 1927, the band learned that Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company planned to capture field recordings of local musicians in Bristol, Tennessee, and decided to take part. However, the band had a falling out and Rodgers attended the recording session alone.
That day, he recorded “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and audiences loved his fresh sound. His records sold like hotcakes. As a result, Peer and Rodgers built a professional relationship. Over the next six years, Rodgers recorded more than 100 songs for Victor RCA.
More importantly, Jimmie Rodgers found the acclaim that he had been looking for. He played in first-run theaters across the country, toured the vaudeville circuit that took him to the biggest cities in the South, and broadcasted regularly from the nation’s capital.
Jimmie Rodgers and other Bristol Sessions standouts like the Carter Family showed Peer and the rest of the world that there was a booming market for country music.
The End of the Line for the Singing Brakeman
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Jimmie Rodgers recorded until he died. In his final days, he would have to rest on a cot between takes because the TB was getting worse. Rodgers finished his final contracted recording session with RCA Victor in New York on May 24, 1933. Two days later, he collapsed while walking down the street and died a few hours later in his room at the Hotel Taft. The cause of death was a massive hemorrhage caused by TB. He was laid to rest in Oak Grove Cemetery in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi.
The Impact of Jimmie Rodgers
Before country music, there was Hillbilly Music, an amalgamation of folk music and blues. Most vocalists favored the high-lonesome sound that bluegrass would later adopt. However, Jimmie Rodgers had a different approach. He injected more personality and emotion into his vocal delivery and became famous for his yodeling. Additionally, his lyrical content ranged from sad to humorous with songs about drinking, cheating, missing home, gambling, and traveling. He opened the eyes and ears of fans and artists alike. The genre as a whole wouldn’t be the same without his influence. In fact, it could be said that it wouldn’t exist without Rodgers’ influence and impact.
As a result, Jimmie Rodgers was the first musician to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Fred Rose, and Hank Williams. Additionally, Rodgers is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (inducted in 1970) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (inducted in 1986 as an “early influence”).
Give our playlist or any of Jimmie Rodgers’ music a spin and you’ll hear the beginnings of country music. Each song is like a building block of the music that fuels us today.