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: