Jimmie Rodgers by John Mellencamp
This beautiful piece on peermusic composer Jimmie Rodgers was written by John Mellencamp and appeared in the 2017 Grammy program to highlight Rodgers’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Mellencamp, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee and Grammy winner, has long championed the founders of roots, country, and blues music and if you haven’t heard his cover of “Gambling Bar Room Blues” from “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers” tribute album, you really should.
By John Mellencamp
Jimmie Rodgers put down a big footprint and said, “Here, fill it.” In just six years as a professional musician, Rodgers left an indelible mark on the music industry for generations to follow. As a songwriter, his stories of hard work and heartache resonated with audiences. It was his unprecedented blend of musical genres, the combination of blues, folk, jazz, and yodeling, that made him a major influence on country music artists such as Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, as well as other artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In 1997, Bob Dylan made a tribute record to Jimmie Rodgers called The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers — A Tribute, which I was honored to be a part of along with Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson and Van Morrison, among others.
After teaching himself to play guitar, Rodgers entered and won an amateur contest at 12 years old. Evidently the call of music had caught him, and Jimmie ran away to join a traveling road show. Although his initial musical career was cut short when his father retrieved him, the die was cast. Jimmie Rodgers the musician was born.
It was through working with his father on the railroad that Rodgers was exposed to the music of southern African-American “gandy dancers,” railroad workers who used rhythm and song to synchronize their labor based on the task at hand. This undoubtedly had a strong influence on Rodgers, who spent the next 12 years of his life working on the railroad while playing and singing to railway workers in the evenings.
In 1924, Rodgers contracted tuberculosis, which ended his career as a brakeman on the railway but opened the door to his legacy as an entertainer. On April 18, 1927, Rodgers, then 29 years old, performed for the first time on WWNC, Asheville, N.C.’s first radio station. Shortly thereafter, Rodgers auditioned for then-RCA talent scout Ralph S. Peer. Rodgers’ first recording session lasted two hours and 20 minutes, and he was paid $100 for his first two songs, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” Rodgers then enlisted his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, as his co-writer. The two penned over 40 songs together, including his next recording, “Blue Yodel,” better know as “T For Texas,” the song that sold half a million copes in the following two years.
Rodgers was the first performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and has been called the Father of Country Music. What Rodgers really did was create an entirely new musical style — a style not bound by any tradition but driven by emotion. Music that did more than entertain; it elevated and connected with millions of people of his generation and many musicians and listeners to come.
Jimmie Rodgers was the real deal. He kept his local and regional identity, yet still managed to speak to the world. His influence in all musical genres cannot be overestimated, and his legacy and influence is found everywhere. America’s Original Roots Music Hero left his mark on rock, blues and pop by inspiring artists and musicians to find their own voice, to be pioneers creating music that might some day also make its mark. Jimmie Rodgers had an emotional connection with his audience. His fans felt that he had changed their lives with his music. As artists, isn’t that what we all aspire to do?
John Mellencamp is a 14-time GRAMMY nominee who won the Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male GRAMMY for 1982. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He received the Woody Guthrie Award in 2003 and the John Steinbeck Award in 2012.