What we call country songs today, three minute tales of faithless love, restless traveling or sentimental ballads about “momma,” owe a part of their heritage to the old mountain ballads and one part to the phonograph records that made an icon of Jimmie Rodgers. In a life as colorful as the songs he sang, the "father of country music," rose from obscurity to create a new level of international stardom for American music. Interviews with Merle Haggard and the only living person to have played with Jimmie Rodgers, Hoyt 'Slim' Bryant; music of Gene Austin and Jimmie Rodgers.
Segment production: Jesse Boggs and David C. Barnett.

Sound Clips

Audio - Merle Haggard on Jimmie Rodgers being the first "unschooled" musician to achieve widespread popular success.

Audio -
Merle Haggard on the elements of country, blues and jazz that formed Jimmie Rodgers' music.

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Merle Haggard remembers how he first heard of Jimmie Rodgers from his mother.

Audio -
Merle Haggard says most of Jimmie Rodgers' songs are masterpieces.

Audio -
Merle Haggard talks about Jimmie Rodgers' influence on many great country musicians.

Audio -
Merle Haggard talks about why Jimmie Rodgers' music resonated with listeners.

Listen to Part 6


Jimmie Rodgers, popularly called “the father of country music,” followed a meteoric path from poverty to fame to early death in a few short years. Combining blues, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley tunes with old-time mountain music, he brought so-called hillbilly music into the mainstream. His trademark yodel influenced countless other performers, in his own time and after. But beyond the echo of the yodel, Rodgers created a musical and performance style that referenced his audience’s personal experiences in songs such as “Waiting for a Train” and set the course of development for decades of commercial country music. His tragic early death from tuberculosis made him the prototype for the doomed country superstar. Nearly 70 years after his passing, Jimmie Rodgers remains an overarching figure in country music whose influence shows up in the performances of Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Willie Nelson, and many others.

Humanities Themes: 

· Urban to rural migration.
· Culture of poverty.
· Cross-cultural influences: Rodgers’ yodelling as example of cross-cultural influence on development of country music.
· How Rodgers’ music reflected the lives of his audience.
· “TB Blues,” “Waiting on a Train,” etc.
· How Rodgers’ music reflected race relations of the day.
· Rodgers as prototype for doomed country superstar.


Rodgers invented a new type of music by incorporating vaudeville, blues, and Tin Pan Alley influences into old-time mountain music. His trademark yodel helped make him a star; influencing countless performers and representing one example of how he incorporated cross-cultural influences into his music. We’ll examine the touchy issue of race relations in the early 20th Century South, by looking at how Rodgers both embraced black culture (recording with such artists as Louis Armstrong and Clifford Gibson) and mocked it (performing such blackface skits as “Pullman Porters”).

His rise to fame took place against a background of social upheaval as thousands of people left the rural areas for the cities in search of work and a better life. His songs like “Waiting for a Train” mirror this upheaval. Rodgers managed to remain connected to his audience while enjoying the rewards of fame and wealth. It may have been his own precarious health—tuberculosis killed him at the height of his career—that helped him form a bond with audiences.

What was the exact effect of his death on his audience? How does Rodgers’ influence continue today in country music and the industry that surrounds it? Which musicians carry on the Rodgers tradition?

Background and Source Quotes: 

Born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1897, Jimmie Rodgers began displaying his love for entertaining and the open road early. By age 13, he had already run away twice to organize musical shows. Not long after this second escapade, his father got Jimmie a job as a waterboy with the railroad. Though he worked a number of railroading jobs, music was still his main interest; by 1927, a burgeoning music scene drew him to North Carolina. His music at this time was the old-time mountain sound. He was discovered by talent scout Ralph Peer while he was playing with the Tenneva Ramblers. When an argument broke out between the members of his band over billing, Jimmie announced, “All right, I’ll just sing one myself,” and auditioned for Peers as a solo act. At the same time he broke with the old sound. His great distinction—the sound that made him a star—was his yodel. (Sources: www.jimmierodgers.com; Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler)

“Blue Yodel #1,” also known as “T for Texas,” was released in 1928 and sold one million copies. This was a new sound, and the effect on country audiences was electric. Jimmie mixed blues with hillbilly music to create something new. He influenced the sound of other performers—all of a sudden you were nothing if you didn’t yodel. (Source: Scholar Dr. Guy Bailey, 2001; “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises,” Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1997) 

Jimmie Rodgers’ rise to fame took place against a background of great social change as thousands of Americans began a mass migration from the countryside to urban areas. As the Depression deepened, this migration took on the urgency of a people trying to survive. The dangerous journey to the city in search of work was reflected in Rodgers’ song, “Waiting for a Train,” based on his actual experiences. He continued to be admired by listeners as an Everyman, even while he enjoyed the privileges of wealth and fame. His songs reflect loneliness: the lure of the open road balanced by longing for home. This reflected the experience of millions of listeners displaced by the Depression. (Source: “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises;” Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler)

Rodgers influenced and was influenced by other musicians. He came along at a time when most country musicians were from a mountain-music background, but in his travels across the country he was influenced by blues, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley songs. Part of his genius was his openness to different musical traditions. He forged a common language out of music as he broke with other cultural traditions. This was a time of official segregation, yet on “Blue Yodel #9” he was accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong. He also recorded with blues guitarist, Clifford Gibson. This is not to say he was a Civil Rights pioneer; some of his other work reflects the racist attitudes often associated with the times. (Source: www.jimmierodgers.com; Tony Russel’s Blacks, Whites, and Blues; Scholar Dr. Guy Bailey, 2001; Scholar Dr. Charles Wolfe, 2002) 

Listeners felt that Jimmie shared their poverty. He was known as the Singing Brakeman. He sang about the loneliness and alienation they felt, but with an element of humor. Jimmie Rodgers had something tragic in common with many of his listeners—the dread disease tuberculosis. The lung disease that ended his career as a train brakeman ironically impelled him toward a musical career. But in a day when there was no effective treatment, the illness gradually took its toll on the singer. His tragic early death elevated him to mythic status and made him a prototype for the doomed country superstar, like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Patsy Cline, and Tammy Wynette. (Source: Scholar Kathleen Hudson, 2002; “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises,” Carrie Rodger’s My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers)Jimmie Rodgers’ influence didn’t end with his death. He had single-handedly taken so-called hillbilly music into the American mainstream, blending it with cultural elements that included blues, vaudeville, and folk songs into the spirit of a country on the move. He became known as the father of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers was the prototype singer-songwriter; fitting the mold even though he didn’t write a lot of the songs he sang. He became a model because he played solo constantly. He became the model for the Gene Autrey-type singing cowboy. He was among the first artists to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Source: www.jimmierodgers.org; “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises;” scholar Dr. Charles Wolfe, 2002; Jimmy Rodgers, The Life and Time of America’s Blue Yodeler)

When Bob Dylan conceived the project, “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers,“ he paid tribute to Rodgers’ legacy, saying, “Times change and don’t change. The nature of humanity has stayed the same. Jimmie is at the heart of it all with a seriousness and a humor that is befuddling….His is the voice in the wilderness of your head…” The album features performers like the late Jerry Garcia—who died during its recording—and Willie Nelson. (Source: “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises”)

Jimmie Dale Court, Rodgers’ grandson, has developed his own approach to his famous grandfather’s songs. He has been criticized for playing Rodgers’ music with a more bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll feel, but says he feels this is in keeping with Rodgers’ own willingness to experiment with different styles. “I’ve got to go my own way.” (Source: Scholar Dr. Kathleen Hudson, 2002) 

Today, Jimmie Rodgers lives on in his yearly tribute organized in Kerrville, Texas. It was here he built his dream house, Blue Yodellers Paradise, which is still standing and currently for sale. He lives on, too, in the work of performers from diverse musical traditions. In his brief but brilliant career, he traveled from rural poverty to fame. Along the way he helped create an all-American music. (Sources: My Husband Jimmie Rodgers; Scholar Dr. Kathleen Hudson, 2002; www.texasheritagemusic.org)

Interview Subjects: 

Jimmie Dale Court. Rogers’ grandson sings Jimmie Rodgers material in his own style.

Nolan Porterfield: Rodgers’ biographer.  

Emmylou Harris: performs Rodgers material.

Doc Watson: speaks of how Rodgers influenced him.

Tim and Molly O’Brien: perform Rodgers material. 

Kathleen Hudson: scholar; director Texas Heritage Music Foundation in Kerrville; produces annual tribute festival.

Guy Bailey: scholar; maintains private library of Jimmie Rodgers material. 

Charles Wolfe: scholar; author of articles on the Bristol, Tennessee sessions.

Significant Historical Recordings:

BVE 39768-3 “Sleep Baby Sleep”—October 7, 1927, Public Domain

BVE 40753-2 “Blue Yodel”—February 3, 1928 (Jimmie Rodgers)

BVE41740-2 “In the Jailhouse Now”—April 6, 1928 (Jimmie Rodgers) 

PBVE54867-3 “Blue Yodel #9”—September 11, 1931 (Jimmie Rodgers)

BVE47223-4 “Waiting for a Train”—February 8, 1929 (Jimmie Rodgers) 

BVE67133-3 “TB Blues”—April 24, 1931 (Jimmie Rodgers)

BS58970-2 “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia”—April 7, 1933 (Jimmie Rodgers)

BVE40754-2 “Away Out on the Mountain”—February 3, 1928 (Kelly Harrell)

BS76332-2 “Years Ago”—December 20, 1933 (Jimmie Rodgers) 

BVE48385-2 “Any Old Time”—September 5, 1930 (Jimmie Rodgers ) Jimmie Davis, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” Roots of Country: ASIN B00005NTSP. May 1, 2001.
Disc 1 #14 “Where the Old Red River Flows” (1962, Jimmie Davis)

The Singing Brakeman Bear Family Box Set. Audio CD. September 5, 1994 Original Release 1992 Bear Family ASIN B00000IAXL
Disc 1 #2 “Sleep Baby Sleep”
Disc 3 #3 “Waiting for a Train”
Disc 4 #1 “In the Jailhouse Now”
Disc 4 #2 “Blue Yodel #9”
Disc 4 #3 “TB Blues”
Disc 6 #16 “Years Ago”
Disc 6 #22 “Blue Yodel”

Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute Sony ASIN B000002BLD. August 19, 1997
#7 “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia”—Willie Nelson

My Dear Old Southern Home, Doc Watson 1991 Sugar Hill Records ASIN B000000F1Z
#10 “Sleep Baby Sleep”

Away Out on the Mountain, Tim and Molly O’Brien Sugar Hill Records. ASIN B000000F3J. 1994.
#1 “Away Out on the Mountain”

Texas Heritage Music Festival, Live From Kerrville Texas Heritage Music Foundation, 1997
Side 2 #4 “Any Old Time” (with “Frankie and Johnnie” and “California Blues”)

Jimmie Dale Court 

Resources: Bibliography, Discography, Archival


Kathleen Hudson, Texas Heritage Music Foundation 


www.alamhof.org (Alabama Music Hall of Fame) 

www.countryweekly.com/historywww.jimmierodgers.com (Jimmie Rodgers Museum, Meridian, Mississippi)

www.roughstock.com/historywww.texasheritagemusic.org (Texas Heritage Music Foundation) 

ooks and Articles:

Ardmore, J.K. “Ballad of Jimmie (Charles) Rodgers.” Coronet, July 1959, pp. 46-56 

Cromelin, Richard. “Singing the Brakeman’s Praises,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1997, p. 9.

Green, Douglas. Country Roots: The Origin of Country Music. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1976. 

Kirby, Jack T. The Countercultural South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. 

Lilly, J. “Legends—No. 4: Jimmie Rodgers” Old Time Herald, Vol 3, 1992, pp 8-10. 

Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA: University of Texas Press, 1975. 

Malone, Bill C. Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. 

Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh. Stars of Country Music: Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975 

Morris, E. “Country Ramblings: Rodger’s Last Sidemusician Remembers.” International Musician (Vol. 94). April 1996, pp 20-21. 

Oermann, Robert K. America’s Music: The Roots of Country. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1996. 

Paris, Mike. Jimmie the Kid: The Life of Jimmie Rodgers. Da Capo Press, 1981 

Porterfield, Nolan. Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. University of Illinois Press, 1979. 

Rodgers, Carrie. My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers. Vanderbilt University Press, 1995. 

Russell, Tony. Blacks, Whites and Blues. Stein and Day, ND. 

Tosches, Nick. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995 
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