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10 Facts About the Father of Country Music

Megan Branch, Intern

For many people, country music has always been a crossover genre. Artists like Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire and the late Johnny Cash are able to tread the line between popular and country music, with hits that please the ears of the thirteen-year-old next door and your grandmother. What most people may not know is that Swift, McEntire, Cash and a whole slew of other performers, including Louis Armstrong, owe much of their success to Jimmie Rodgers. In his new book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century, Barry Mazor chronicles Rodgers’ life and career up until his unfortunate death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five. Then Mazor goes on to detail Rodgers’ far-reaching influence that continues even now, almost 80 years since his death. Below, from Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, are 10 of the most interesting things about the father of country music you may not have known.

1. He ran away from home to join a traveling show:
“By the age of twelve, Jimmie had attempted to stage a tent carnival of his own, and even took it on the road locally […] Soon after, he ran away from home with a medicine show, having convinced the management, based on his amateur ‘experience,’ that he was a professional performer.”
2. He had a voice like no one else:
“…[Y]ou always knew—literally—where he was coming from. The speech from which his singing extended was Mississippi speech, not just in references, but also in sound. On record, his accent is particularly light, sweet, and most of all present—not diluted or eradicated […] he rather charmingly loses a few middle-of-the-word r’s to rhyme a very liquid barrel with gal…”

3. He raised a huge amount of money for the Red Cross during the Depression:
“[Will] Rogers, Rodgers, and crew flew from town to town across Texas and up into Oklahoma, pulling in unprecedented amounts of cash for relief…every dime going to the Red Cross for food and basics like vegetable seeds, so families could stay fed.”

4. BB King is a fan:
“‘My aunt was a kind of collector of music of her time,’ King recalls […] ‘But of the many [records] she had, Jimmie Rodgers was one of my own favorites […] I never tried to yodel—though he was good at that.’”

5. He didn’t stick to only one style of music:
“There would be Peer-produced Jimmie Rodgers recordings featuring Hawaiian bands, jazz bands, country stringbands, pop orchestras, protocowboy and Texas string contingents, and also those groundbreaking sessions with African-American musicians from Louis Armstrong to the Louisville Jug Band.”

6. He inspired many imitators:
“After the unmistakable success of the first blue yodel, ‘T for Texas,’ brazen imitators immediately started to appear, matching the blue yodeling on their records as closely as possible to the original…Many were utterly inconsequential; many only good enough to be recalled in their context…”

7. He made songs his own:
“Slim Bryant recalls how Jimmie changed precisely one line of ‘Mother, the Queen of My Heart,’[…]Jimmie wrote the line ‘I knew I was wrong from the start’ near the end—the whole function of which is to make the storyteller’s own reaction to the story the emotional punch line of the tale.”

8. He had first-hand experience with tragedy:
Songwriter Steve Forbert “focuses on the traumatic winter of 1923 when Jimmie and Carrie’s baby daughter, June Rebecca, died. Jimmie took off for points West for months, then returned to Meridian and received the formal diagnosis of tuberculosis—which, by then, he had surely understood was coming.”

9. He is in our “musical DNA”:
“And while there is no credible evidence that any actual cattle workers had ever yodeled in the moonlight, after Jimmie Rodgers developed this cowboy theme, legions of screen and recording cowboys were going to be doing it until people across the world thought yodeling cowboys were history, not fantasy.”

10. He inspired women, too:
Tanya Tucker, a “famously, singularly, affectingly earthy country heroine—born, it seems in retrospect, to tackle Jimmie Rodgers songs head-on—took the unmitigated yet, as she proved, still timely sentiment of Jimmie’s ‘Daddy and Home’ to the upper reaches of the country charts in 1988, after having fought to make it a single. Tanya Tucker was born in the late ‘50s but had been raised on Rodgers music.”

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