Jimmie Rodgers Was Here

MERIDIAN—It’s overcast and gloomy today. I’m walking the hometown streets of Jimmie Rodgers and I feel his memory here.

When you cross the bridge in Meridian, you see the muddy trainyards crowded with tired boxcars, flatcars, and exhaust rising from diesel locomotives. And you know this is the junction town where the Grandfather of Country Music was born at the turn of the century.

There is some debate on the subject of Jimmie’s home place. An old woman I once knew swore that Jimmie’s kinfolk were from Geiger, Alabama. Another friend of mine says Bristol, Tennessee.

I can’t shed any new light on the matter. All I can say is: When you visit Meridian, do not mention either of these theories or they will drag you behind the Methodist church and shoot you.

I like Rodgers’ music so much that I often play it at my shows, I even yodel a little and sound like a bloodhound with bronchitis. Afterward, young people usually ask, “Who wrote that weird yodeling song?”

“Jimmie Rodgers,” I’ll say.

“That’s nifty. Does he have a YouTube channel?”

You have to worry about America’s youth.

My appreciation for Jimmie Rodgers began at a church rummage sale when I was eleven. There was an old man named Brother Gary who sat behind a card table, selling several old guitars.

He was smoking a cigarette, wearing a pocket T-shirt. Gary was a Baptist deacon who openly smoked unfiltered Camels on church property without shame. It was a different world back then.

I was browsing Gary’s guitar collection when one instrument in particular caught my eye. On the back of this guitar was the word “THANKS,” painted in giant letters.

I asked about it. Gary said, “My wife painted that, because I always liked Jimmie Rodgers, he had the same thing painted on his guitar.”

“Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?” I asked.

The old man looked insulted. He yanked the guitar from me and said, “Stand back.” He flatpicked the varnish off the thing. And I knew at that moment what I wanted to do with my life. Even now I remember the exact song he played. “T for Texas.”

When he finished, Gary said, “There. Now you’ve been introduced to Jimmie.”

“That’s nifty,” I said. “Does he have any eight-track cassettes?”

The old man played several more songs until he’d drawn a crowd of kids. Gary was an entertainer from an era when entertainers had talent. Whereas in today’s world, all an entertainer needs is a tight set of hindparts, a camera crew, and a major endorsement deal with a yogurt company.

After Brother Gary’s performance, we all applauded. The old man bowed and flipped his guitar so the backside showed “THANKS.”

I needed that guitar.

I tried to buy it even though I only had six bucks to my name. I offered to mow Gary’s grass for the next forty years in exchange.

Gary said, “Nope. Sorry, this guitar ain’t for sale.”

Then, since Brother Gary had an audience, he told several wide-eyed children the fairytale of Jimmie Rodgers. I don’t remember everything, but I recall the highlights:

He said, “Jimmie worked on the railroad as a waterboy when he was thirteen, he learned to pick a guitar from railroad workers, playing the blues in boxcars.”

We kids fell quiet. You could have heard a pick drop. Gary lit another smoke and blew it toward the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters.

He went on, “When Jimmie was in his twenties, he started having trouble with his lungs, the doc told him it was tuberculosis, a death sentence. But instead of rolling over and dying, Jimmie went out like a man.”

Rodgers quit the railroad in 1924 and went to Asheville to audition for a radio gig. Tuberculosis is no day at the beach, and he knew he didn’t have much time left.

In the following years, Rodgers gained popularity with his trademarked yodeling. Jimmie once said he’d picked up this talent at a Swiss church meeting. Which only raises the question: Yodeling in church? For crying out loud, my church didn’t even allow cough syrup.

“Rodgers finally made it famous,” Brother Gary went on. “By the time the Brakeman was in his thirties, he was performing with Will Rogers on the vaudeville circuit.”

“What’s vaudeville?” one boy asked.

“Who’s Will Rogers?” asked another.

Brother Gary was wounded.

Seven years after Jimmie’s diagnosis, at age thirty-four he was crumbling. By age thirty-five he was barely hanging on, but he forced himself to keep recording. For his final session he brought a nurse along to the studio. They say Jimmie took naps on a cot between takes.

“It was a short career,” Brother Gary said, “but he was the first country music star. Every musician wanted to be like Jimmie. Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Elvis, Cash, Willie, and me.”

The old man finished his story and within four seconds the guitars on his table had been purchased by eager children under his spell.

I’ve grown up a lot since then. But not totally. While doing a little research for this column I called a few old friends to locate Brother Gary.

I finally got in touch with his daughter who said, “Oh, Dad’s been a long time now, but he woulda been thrilled that you wrote about him, he always liked you.”

I asked about the old man’s guitar, and who inherited it.

“Well,” she said, “Dad had that guitar since he was nineteen. We just didn’t think he should be separated from it, so it’s still with him.”

Dear Brother Gary, if you’re up there reading this somehow:



  1. Lita - March 4, 2020 8:05 am

    Jimmie, Gary, Sean. Thanks.

  2. Marilyn Ward Vance - March 4, 2020 9:28 am

    This brings back memories of my daddy singing Jimmie Rodgers songs….thanks for the reminder of times gone by.

  3. Cathi Russell - March 4, 2020 9:42 am

    Jimmie Rodgers…Lordy, my daddy loved him & I do too. Thanks, Sean, for that smile on this way too early morning!

  4. Connie Havard Ryland - March 4, 2020 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the sweet story this morning. Have a fabulous day.

  5. MaryAnn Gilbert - March 4, 2020 1:41 pm

    RIP, Brother Gary.

  6. Tommy - March 4, 2020 2:27 pm

    When my daughter met her now father in law from West Texas he asked her if she knew who Jimmie Rodgers was. She said, “Are you kidding? The Yodeling Brakeman? My daddy wouldn’t have let me out of the house if i didn’t know who Jimmie Rodgers was!”.

  7. Brad Campbell - March 4, 2020 2:40 pm

    Awesome, Sean! You not only captured the feelings on folks in and around Meridian, but you make me feel as if I know Bro. Gary. And for the record, we Sumter County, Alabama, folks still believe Jimmie hailed from Geiger. LOL

  8. Jennifer Bain - March 4, 2020 3:13 pm

    Meridian is the city of my birth. I know all about Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers day was when we had “country music stars” come to town. Good memories from my childhood. Be looking for you in Trussville soon.

  9. C.F. David - March 4, 2020 4:05 pm

    No doubt, the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s Honky Tonk Man.

  10. Linda Moon - March 4, 2020 5:28 pm

    I sometimes worry about America’s youth and their lack of appreciation for a time gone-by, just like a Methodist I knew who worried about me and my generation. He smoked unfiltered Camels before people knew we were supposed to worry about smoking! Thanks for this story, Sean. I’ve liked you for a year or so and hope I can read your stories “somehow” up there, too. But I prefer to read them in the here and now!

  11. Glenda Hinkle - March 4, 2020 6:02 pm

    You’re an “old soul”, Sean. My Daddy was a picker and so was my Uncle. They both adored Jimmie Rodgers. My Uncle made a living in the music business—-writing, recording and promoting out in Oklahoma. He wrote many songs but the most famous is When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again. I can just hear you singing and picking that song!! My Dad and Uncle were about 15 years younger than Jimmie but he was their idol…………

  12. Berryman Mary M - March 4, 2020 8:00 pm

    Great story, Sean. Reminds me that my mother had these 14 caret gold loop earrings and she never felt she was “dressed” without them. So before her casket was closed for the final time, I decided that she definitely needed those earrings on when she went to meet Jesus, because as a genteel southern lady she would want to be properly “dressed” for the occasion.

  13. Jim D Rogers - March 4, 2020 8:26 pm

    I’m Jimmy Rogers, born in 1935 to a Daddy who loved Jimmie Rodgers. Since I wouldn’t have the “D” in my last name, he gave me the middle name “Dee.” That was as close as I could get to the original.
    I loved your r-tickle — as I always do.

  14. Gretchen - March 11, 2020 12:53 am

    Love your column as always, Sean, but do NOT like the reference to hind parts and yogurt endorsement a la Dak Prescott who is our hero here at Mississippi State University!!!!

  15. Steve (Lifer) - April 9, 2020 7:51 am


  16. Dan Seaman - April 9, 2020 3:18 pm

    “T for Texas” is like the subtitle of that song, which is actually called “Blue Yodel.” Everybody always calls it “T for Texas,” though. Great tune! And another great column.

  17. Karen Court - June 16, 2020 7:33 am

    Sean, So Great to Experience your Story for the first time and Ironically about Jimmie too! My Son and I laughed and you have Jimmie’s story down, an he is from Geiger, his grandparents lived there. Your words are so appreciated and came to us at just the right time! We will send a link to the rest of the family so they can also share such a inspirational story of someone’s first Jimmie Rodgers experience. Thank God for Brother Gary! Thank God for Sean and Jamie! We would love to hear you play and yodel even if you do sound like a bloodhound with bronchitis! Love to both of you from all of us from Jimmie Rodgers Family.


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