Country singer Jimmie Rodgers was born in either Mississippi or Alabama, depending on who you ask, and he died in New York. But somewhere in between (1927, to be exact), he traveled to Asheville where he and Otis Kuykendall performed on WWNC, the city’s first radio station.
Rodgers is known as the “father of country music,” but also as the “signing brakeman” because even though he tried to start his music career as early as age 13, Rodgers father reigned him in with jobs on the railroad. The artist worked as a water boy, first, and then a brakeman until he contracted tuberculosis. But the railroad put Rodgers in touch with the working men and hobos who taught him to play guitar. And illness gave Rodgers time away from the railroad to pursue his career as a musician.
Of Rodger’s April 18 WWNC show, The Asheville Times wrote, “Jimmy [sic] Rodgers and his entertainers managed … with a type of music quite different than the station’s usual material, but a kind that finds a cordial reception from a large audience,” according to the musician’s official bio. “Another columnist said, ‘Whoever that fellow is, he either is a winner or he is going to be.’”
Shortly after that, Rodgers and his Tenneva Ramblers landed a spot on the Asheville station as weekly entertainers. By October, they had released their first record. A second album soon thereafter, with four songs, sold nearly half a million copies, making the singing brakeman a star.
Sadly, Rodgers succumbed to TB only six years after that initial Asheville radio broadcast. But, although 80 years have since passed, neither Rodgers nor his considerable impact on country music have been forgotten.
Sunday, Sept. 8, marks the 106th anniversary of Rodgers’ birth. In commemoration of his contribution to Asheville’s musical history, WNCmusic will hold a public ceremony at 2 p.m. unveiling a state historical marker. Mayor Bellamy has declared Sunday to be “Jimmie Rodgers Day.” She will speak at the unveiling ceremony at the corner of Haywood Street and Battery Park Ave. The event also includes street performances and a busker’s parade at 4 p.m. leading into a reception at the Asheville Music Hall.
The evening program, dedicated to the life and legacy of Rodgers, involves film, speeches and live performances. “An emphasis will be on the role musicians have played in developing Asheville’s distinct place in history and the economic benefit they have provided to the community leaders through enhancing the tourism and attracting creative individuals for centuries,” says press for the event. Tickets for the evening program are $10.