In the hot and humid piney woods of the Deep South, you’ll find a small industrial city that has become a hub for trucks that crisscross the nation. But Meridian, Mississippi - population 40,000 - was once an important railroad center.
It was there, more than 80 years ago, that the man known as the “Father of Country Music” lived and wrote lonesome tunes, including several mournful train songs.
As the nation’s first known professional country singer, Jimmie Rodgers recorded hit after hit. They featured his distinctive yodeling sound that inspired cowboy singers such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
On “Blue Yodel No. 8,” for instance, Jimmie Rodgers sang:
“Good morning, captain, good morning, shine.
“Do you need another muleskinner out on your new mud line?
Jimmie Rodgers learned music from black Mississippi cotton workers. He took their blues sound and embellished it with a backwoods twang that suggested deep mountain hollows far from big-city life. Rodgers worked as a railroad brakeman in Meridian, and he contracted tuberculosis on the job.
But as the disease slowly took his breath - and his life - away, “The Singing Brakeman” got a recording contract and became famous throughout the land.
As Rodgers’ tuberculosis worsened, he recorded a song about the disease before he died at the age of 32 in 1933. He called it “The T.B. Blues.”
Rodgers is still a hero in his hometown. In fact, there’s a Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian in a building designed to look like a railroad depot. Inside are some of his outfits, his sheet music and records, lots of photographs, and his old guitar.
Country music has become slick and enormously popular, of course. The economies of cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, are built around the country-music phenomenon. And many a night at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the biggest country stars of the day take a moment to thank the man who started it all.
In 1961, Jimmie Rodgers - the “Singing Brakeman” - was the first person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.