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DURING THE DEPRESSION, Southerners joked, the typical shopping list was a pound of butter, a slab of bacon, a sack of flour, and the new Jimmie Rodgers record. The wildly popular Rodgers, today acknowledged as the father of country music, was better known in his heyday as the Blue Yodeler and the Singing Brakeman, nicknames that reflected his distinctive style and his years of working on the railroad. Between 1927 and 1933 Rodgers churned out more than a hundred hit songs, including “Blue Yodel (T for Texas),” “In the Jailhouse Now,” and “T.B. Blues.” The last bemoaned the illness that prompted him to move to temperate Kerrville, where this month the Texas Heritage Music Festival celebrates the centennial of his birth.
He was born James Charles Rodgers on September 8, 1897, in Pine Springs, Mississippi. At fourteen he was already on the rails, working his way up from water boy to baggage master and, of course, brakeman.
His first marriage, at age nineteen to Stella Kelly, lasted only a few months. In 1920 he married Carrie Williamson, with whom he had two children—June Rebecca, who died in infancy, and Carrie Anita. Ten years later Rodgers encountered his first wife after a concert and met another daughter, Kathryn, whose existence was a total surprise.
Afflicted since childhood with respiratory problems, Rodgers was diagnosed in 1924 with tuberculosis, then a fatal disease.
The footloose Rodgers moved often. In August 1927 he traveled to Bristol, a town straddling the Virginia-Tennessee line, while Ralph Peer of Victor Records (later RCA Victor) was there scouting for hillbilly-style musical acts. In a single week Peer recorded the first 78’s by two eventual legends, Rodgers and the Carter Family.
An exhausting schedule of studio sessions and concerts exacerbated Rodgers’ tuberculosis. When a coughing fit seized him in mid-performance, audience members would call out, “Spit ’er up, Jimmie, and sing some more!”
Rolling in concert fees and royalties, Rodgers decided to move to Texas to improve his health. In April 1929 he began building a Kerrville mansion, Blue Yodeler’s Paradise. But six months later, after the stock-market crash, Rodgers was ailing financially as well as physically. He left Kerrville in 1931.
On May 26, 1933, he died in New York City, two days after a grueling series of recording sessions. He was 35. The songs, released posthumously, included “The Cowhand’s Last Ride” and “I’m Free (From the Chain Gang Now).”