Grand Ole Opry

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As Jimmie Rodgers’ health failed, he traveled more, wrote more, and with the knowledge of having only a few more years left, began drinking hard and living as fast as he could. On August 4, 1927, he got his big break. On the Tennessee side of State Street in Bristol, Ralph S. Peer, who, a month before, had recorded the Carter Family, recorded the first Jimmie Rodgers’ record. It was an instant sensation, and in the next few years he was to record 111 more songs, most of them his own: “I’m Lonely and Blue,” “Way Out on the Mountain,” “Freight Train Blues,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and his famous “ T for T exas, T for T ennessee, / T for T helma, that gal that made a wreck out of me.” His success, with its built-in sense of self-destruction, fed his popularity: he was living the wild and doomed life his fans identified with.

Rodgers’ first hits featured his famous “Blue Yodel,” and when he hit the big time he built himself a mansion in Kerrville, Texas, and called it Blue Yodeler’s Paradise. In his song “Jimmie the Kid” he tells much of his own story: “I’ll tell you a story about Jimmie the Kid, / A brakeman you all know, He shoveled coal / On the T & N & P.O. …” The list of railroads goes on, along with his failures and his successes and his great pride in Carrie, his daughter Anita, and his Blue Yodeler’s Paradise.

For six years Jimmie Rodgers recorded and toured the country appearing with such stars as Gene Austin and Will Rodgers, and as the tuberculosis weakened him, he seemed to work harder. Maybelle Carter recalled recording with him a year before his death. “I played [guitar] for him. … He wasn’t able to play … he was that sick … I had to play like him, you know, so everybody would think it was him. But it was me.”

In April, 1933, Jimmie Rodgers knew the end was in sight. In New York for a recording session, he rested between takes on a cot set up in the studio. The last twelve songs recorded there were to provide for Carrie and Anita. On May 25, on a sightseeing trip to Coney Island, he began hemorrhaging, and late the next day at the Taft Hotel he died at the age of thirty-six.

Talents like Jimmie Rodgers—and jazz stars Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker—in reaching for the better tunes, the fresher licks, and the newer sounds, keep stepping up the pace until they are producing more songs, more music, and more poetry in one year than the rest of us do in a lifetime. But they pay a fierce price, fueling their talent with whisky, pills, and running around until it breaks them.

It is as if Hank Williams, who was born in Georgiana, Alabama, in 1923 and grew up selling peanuts and shining shoes, had read the book on Jimmie Rodgers and then set out to follow the same wild and careening trail. At twenty-six, after a wretched life filled with rejection, poverty, and living up to his reputation for being a drunk, he finally got a chance on the Opry. His first song was his own “Lovesick Blues,” which is still one of the toughest songs around. The crowd forced him to sing six encores and were standing on their feet screaming for more when Red Foley, the master of ceremonies, finally had to tell them there were other singers on the show, and they had his solemn promise that they would be seeing a lot more of Mr. Hank Williams. Melvin Shestack, in his Country Music Encyclopedia , recalls how, as a high school journalist, he interviewed Williams when he played a small town in New York State. After eating hot dogs and drinking orange soda, they sat under a tree and Williams tried to explain where he got ideas for songs. “I don’t know how to answer that. Sometimes I make ‘em up. Other times they just come to me. And other times I listen to people and try to understand how they feel about things. Feelings about things. That’s what songs should be about.”