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RODGERS, JAMES CHARLES

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RODGERS, JAMES CHARLES (1897–1933). James Charles (Jimmie) Rodgers, often considered the "father of country music," was born on September 8, 1897, at Meridian, Mississippi. He was the son of Aaron W. and Eliza (Bozeman) Rodgers. His father was a railroad gang foreman, and Jimmie, whose mother died when he was six years old, grew up on the railroad. He started work as a water carrier at the age of fourteen and eventually became a brakeman. Working on railroads throughout the South, he learned songs from black railroad workers, who also taught him to play the banjo and the guitar. In 1917 he married Stella Kelly; they were divorced in 1919. The following year, on April 7, 1920, he married Carrie Cecil Williamson, and they had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy.

A severe case of tuberculosis, diagnosed in 1924, limited Rodgers's ability to work on railroads. He went through a chain of odd jobs and migrations in the South and Southwest. He served a brief stint as an entertainer with a medicine show and for a while drove a cab in Asheville, North Carolina, where he had moved in search of a more healthful climate. He performed on the local radio station, singing both popular and country music, and organized a group known as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, who toured briefly, singing both popular and country music.

In 1927 Rodgers auditioned for the Victor Talking Machine Company and was signed to a contract. He made his first recording on August 4, 1927, in Bristol, on the Tennessee–Virginia border, recording "Sleep, Baby Sleep" and "Soldier's Sweetheart." His early records catapulted him to almost immediate fame.

Rodgers introduced a new form to commercial hillbilly music, the blue yodel, heard best in the "Blue Yodel" series of twelve songs—"Blue Yodel No. 1," "Blue Yodel No. 2," etc. A thirteenth Blue Yodel was renamed "Jimmie Rodgers Last Blue Yodel" when issued after his death. The first Blue Yodel, recorded in Camden, New Jersey, in November 1927, has remained one of the most popular of his songs and has become known as "T for Texas." Rodgers recorded 110 songs altogether and sold twenty million records between 1927 and 1933. He may have earned as much as $100,000 annually, but medical bills took most of it. Billed during his professional career as "America's Blue Yodeler" and the "Singing Brakeman," Rodgers, although unable to read music, enthralled radio, recording, and stage audiences with his performance of songs that seemed to catalogue the varied memories and experiences of small-town and rural Americans. His records included such songs as "The One Rose," "TB Blues," "In the Jailhouse Now," "Any Old Time," "My Carolina Sunshine Girl," and "The Yodeling Ranger" (composed shortly after Rodgers was made an honorary Texas Ranger in Austin in 1931). Rodgers's guitar technique and his famous blue yodel, as well as the informality of his presentation, were emulated by scores of young country singers—Jimmie Davis, Hank Snow, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Kenneth Threadgill, and others—whose success was a tribute to the country singing star. Rodgers held four recording sessions in Texas: Dallas (August and October 1929, February 1932), and San Antonio (January 1931), which produced twenty-two issued sides.

To seek relief from tuberculosis, Rodgers moved to the higher and more arid climate of the Texas Hill Country and restricted himself to performances in the South and Southwest. During the last few years of his life he made most of his appearances in Texas. In 1929 he built an imposing brick residence, Blue Yodeler's Paradise, in Kerrville, but left there to live in a modest home in San Antonio in 1932. He died on May 26, 1933, in his hotel room in New York City while on a recording trip there. He was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Meridian, Mississippi. Jimmie Rodgers was the first person named, by unanimous vote, to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. He received this posthumous honor on November 3, 1961, less than a month before the death of his wife in San Antonio. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "early influence" in 1986.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American, July 29, August 5, 1972. Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Nolan Porterfield, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979, 1992; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Carrie Williamson Rodgers, My Husband Jimmie Rodgers (Nashville: Ernest Tubb, 1935; rpt., 1953). Jimmie Rodgers (http://www.jimmierodgers.com/), accessed November 17, 2011.

Rev. by Nolan Porterfield

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Rev. by Nolan Porterfield, "RODGERS, JAMES CHARLES," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fro45), accessed April 16, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 3, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.