popular joke during the Depression was that the typical shopping list
for Southerners was a pound of butter, a slab of bacon, a sack of
flour and the new Jimmie Rodgers record. It was more observation than
Rodgers was country music's first superstar, though he owed more to
the blues than what was then called "hillbilly music." Between 1927
and 1933 he recorded more than 100 songs, including classics like
"In the Jailhouse Now," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Waiting for a Train."
He sold more than 20 million records in his lifetime, more than any
Victor (now RCA Victor) artist pre-Elvis. His music has inspired generations
of performers across all musical genres, including Gene
Autry, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Born in Mississippi in 1897, Rodgers spent much of his life on the
road as a traveling troubadour and vagabond. One of his favorite places
was Texas, describing it as "a state I dearly love" in his song "Waiting
for a Train." He arrived here as early as 1916, when he found himself
in El Paso
looking for a job with the Texas and Pacific Railroad. He returned
to the state many times and settled here in what would turn out to
be his old age. He was even named an honorary member of the Texas
Rangers in 1931. Nearly every town in Texas has, somewhere in its
history, a verified Jimmie Rodgers sighting or two, and more than
a few stories. Like the time after a performance in Temple
when he returned to his motel and commenced singing from the window
of his room, drawing such a crowd that the cops had to break up the
ensuing traffic jam.
Rodgers took a circuitous route to Texas. He quit school when he was
14 and went to work for the railroad where his father was a foreman.
Jimmie started out as a water boy and worked his way up to brakeman,
learning how to play banjo and guitar from Black railroad workers
all over the South. When railroad work became too strenuous for him
after a TB diagnosis in 1924, he worked a series of odd jobs and played
music to anyone who would listen.
In Asheville, North Carolina he drove a cab and began performing on
local radio shows and in concert. At the time there really wasn't
such a thing as country music as far as the recording industry was
concerned. Radio stations didn't play country music because there
were no country music records to play.
That changed in 1927 when the Victor Talking Machine Company in Bristol,
a small town on the Tennessee-Virginia border, put an ad in the local
paper inviting people to audition for the company. Rodgers decided
to give it a go. The sessions that took place as a result, which included
the Carter Family and Jimmy Stoneman in addition to Rodgers, have
been called the Big Bang of Country Music.
Rodgers recorded two songs at that first session, "The Soldier's Sweetheart"
and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" that met with only moderate success. At a
follow-up session in October of 1927, he recorded his first smash
hit: "Blue Yodel Number One," usually referred to as "T for Texas."
Rodgers spent his final years in Texas and held four recording sessions
here from 1929 to 1932. He moved from San
Antonio to Kerrville
in hopes that the clean Hill
Country air might give him some relief from the tuberculosis that
was slowly killing him. He built a house at the intersection of Main
and Jackson and called it "Blue Yodelers Paradise," but the Depression
took what money he wasn't spending on medical bills, and he moved
back to a modest house in San
Antonio in 1931.
The TB finished him off in 1933 at the age of 35 while he was in New
York for a recording session. Country music didn't forget him. Rodgers
was the Country Music Hall of Fame's first inductee in 1961. In 1986,
he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "Early
Influences" category. Tonight, somewhere in America, someone is playing
a Jimmie Rodgers song.